New study looks at social costs of hearing loss

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A Johns Hopkins Medicine study has found a link between hearing loss and poorer physical and mental health in older adults.

Overall poorer health also meant more frequent hospitalizations for those with hearing loss versus their normal-hearing peers.

With treating hearing loss being a way to potentially reduce burdens to our already strapped government Medicare and Medicaid programs, expanding coverage to include a wider range of hearing services could significantly lower overall health costs.

About two-thirds of people older than 70 suffer from some degree of hearing impairment, compared to hearing loss affecting about 10 percent of the general population. In fact, the American Academy of Audiology and the Better Hearing Institute notes that hearing loss is the third most common health problem in the United States.

In the Hopkins study, results of which were published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the more than 1,000 participants in the older-than-70 group underwent hearing tests for the study over a four-year period.

They were part of a larger, ongoing study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants also answered detailed questionnaires regarding their physical and mental health.

Those with hearing loss were found to be 32 percent more likely to have been admitted to a hospital, 36 percent more likely to have stretches of illness or injury lasting more than 10 days, and 57 percent more likely to have deep episodes of stress, depression or bad mood lasting more than 10 days when compared to their normal-hearing peers.

Experts, including those at Johns Hopkins, have suggested over the past few years that the physical and mental declines seen older adults experiencing hearing loss may be related to social isolation, which can often occur as untreated hearing loss progresses over time.

The impact of social isolation might then lead to more frequent illnesses and ultimately hospitalizations.

Currently, researchers at Johns Hopkins are examining whether treating hearing loss through hearing aids or other types of assistive devices may actually reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

The importance of early diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss is becoming increasingly recognized by healthcare professionals.

As more studies continue to substantiate the effects of hearing loss, not only on quality of life but even the broader social and economic impacts, healthcare policymakers may begin seeking ways to expand coverage for hearing healthcare services for Medicare and Medicaid patients to help ensure affordable access to services and potentially significant cost savings to taxpayers.

If you have concerns that you or a loved one may be suffering from hearing loss, speak with your doctor and seek a referral to a licensed audiologist.

Some facts on hearing loss:

People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to report depression, anxiety, and paranoia and less likely to participate in organized activities, compared to those who wear hearing aids, according to a survey by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA).

Untreated mild to moderate hearing loss is associated with short-term memory loss.

People in the workforce with untreated hearing loss lose as much as $30,000 in income annually, depending on the severity of hearing loss and are twice as likely to experience unemployment as their peers who use hearing aids on the job.

Fewer than 15 percent of physicians today ask patients if they have any hearing problems.

Dr. Kevin Liebe is an audiologist at Columbia Basin Hearing Center (www.ColumbiaBasinHearing.com). He writes about of topics relating to hearing loss and public health.

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