Connection Between Hearing and Overall Health

Celebrating Better Hearing & Speech Month - Connecting People - includes photo of a man cupping his ear to hear better

At least 46 million people in the United States live with hearing loss or have another communication disorder that affects how they engage with their environments. Among U.S. residents aged 65–74, one in three have experienced hearing loss. Half of people aged 75 or older have hearing loss. Hearing disorders can occur at any age and do occur in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Hearing, voice, speech, and language impact our public health and wellbeing.

To raise awareness about hearing and speech problems, the American Speech Language-Hearing Association founded Better Hearing and Speech Month (May). The focus is to encourage people to assess their own hearing and speech and act if they think there might be a problem. Often, treatment(s) can be given to improve the quality of life in people with communication problems.

Health data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that among more than 150,000 people aged 50 and older, untreated hearing loss is associated with greater risk of depression, dementia, heart attack, and falls. The data shows that over 10 years, untreated hearing loss was associated with a 52 percent greater risk of dementia, a 41 percent higher risk of depression and an almost 30 percent greater risk for falls when compared with those who had no hearing loss.

Researchers are interested in the links between loneliness, hearing loss, and dementia. It is estimated that hearing loss treatment and/or interventions could prevent up to nine percent of the more than 47 million dementia cases in the world. A trial study is expected to be completed this year, and it will also examine the impact of hearing treatment on loneliness.

Differences between deaf and hard-of-hearing

Professionals and community members alike should understand the differences between deaf, deafened, and hard-of-hearing individuals, and the cultural diversity among deaf and hard-of-hearing learners. Staying culturally humble by examining our own attitudes, values, and beliefs about people from other cultures and linguistic backgrounds and those with hearing loss is essential. This includes understanding the meaning for gestures and words, as what is acceptable in one culture or language can be offensive in another.

Of note, though nearly two million black Americans have a hearing impairment, research suggests that the odds of hearing loss are substantially lower for blacks than those who are white. Epidemiologic studies of large populations have found that the rate of hearing loss is 40 percent to 60 percent lower in black individuals compared with white individuals. While the basis for this connection remains largely unknown, research has identified a potential biological influence.

In the study “Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA” by Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, et al., the authors examine the degree to which skin tone is correlated to hearing loss. The authors argue that melanocytes, which produce the melanin pigment that determines skin color, are present in both the skin and cochlea. Increased melanin in the inner ear may help protect the cochlea against age-related cellular declines and hearing loss in darker-skinned individuals. Differences in noise exposure or in genetic determinants may also factor into the connection between race and hearing loss.

What are signs of hearing loss?

You or a loved one may have a hearing problem and not realize it. You should see your doctor if you:

  • Frequently ask people to repeat themselves
  • Turn an ear in the direction of sound to hear it better
  • Understand conversation better when you look directly at the person, and you need see their facial expressions and lip movements to understand what they are saying
  • Are unable to hear all parts of a group conversation
  • Experience pain or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Listen to the TV or radio at volume levels higher than other people normally listen to.

Your health care provider may refer you to an audiologist for a hearing test. An audiologist is a health professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating people with hearing problems. In most cases hearing loss is treatable.

Audiologists can teach their clients to concentrate on listening to certain sounds. Hearing loss can often be overcome using hearing aids or other assistive learning devices.

Local resources

  • Hearing Speech, and Deaf Center: This nonprofit serves the Puget Sound area, with offices in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellingham. Its mission is to foster inclusive and accessible communities through communication, advocacy, and education.
  • Hearing Loss Association of America—Washington: This all-volunteer statewide advocacy organization is dedicated to helping people with hearing loss through support and hearing technology education.
  • CapTel Captioned Telephone: Provides user-friendly technology at no cost to the user (thanks to federal funding). In the greater Seattle area, contact Jeretta Scott for more information.

Hearing is important to our overall health and wellness. Assess your own hearing and speech and act if you think there might be a problem.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”—Dr. Brené Brown

Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, MSN, Aging and Disability ServicesMary Pat O’Leary is a Senior Planner with Aging and Disability Services and extends her thanks to Jeretta Scott, Outreach and Education for CapTel-Captioned Telephone Washington State, for her ongoing support to older adults by consistently promoting technology to support communication.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of AgeWise King County.