The real story behind headlines about hearing loss and health

January 22, 2024
Small hearing aids and parts sit on a white napkin in front of an open box.
Hearing aids and spare parts sit on a desk during an appointment for new hearing aids at MUSC East Cooper Medical Pavilion. Photo by Sarah Pack

Recent research about the value of hearing aids has made a lot of people’s ears perk up. Studies have linked it to a reduced risk of dementia and a longer life, among other things. Peter Dixon, M.D., a scientist and an ear, nose and throat specialist with MUSC Health, is glad the that the importance of getting hearing tests is making news. But, he said, there are nuances behind the headlines.

“I think a lot of what you're talking about and seeing, and that's been reported repeatedly in the media, are about strong associations between hearing loss and cognitive decline, dementia, all sorts of things like hospitalizations and falls and cardiovascular disease,” Dixon said.

“Even more recently, there’s been some evidence about association with longevity. But what those studies don't tell you in terms of the whole picture is how much of that association is really attributable to a causative effect. In other words, does hearing loss cause an increased risk of dementia or dying or whatever outcome you're looking at. And the corollary is – does treating hearing loss prevent those things?”

Dixon said hearing loss probably does contribute to other problems and treating it does reduce risk. But it often doesn’t occur in isolation. “A lot of things that cause both hearing loss and cognitive decline, like vascular disease or genetic predisposition or whatever, could be contributing to what we see.” 

Man in a white doctor's coat. He's smiling and wearing a tie. 
Dr. Peter Dixon

That’s why he said it’s important to see hearing in the context of a person’s overall health. The good news is that hearing loss is usually an easily treatable problem that has a huge impact on quality of life as well as the other potential benefits mentioned above.

“I think what's getting missed in this whole piece is how important treating hearing loss is as a communication disorder. We have plenty of evidence from lots of studies about how treating hearing loss can substantially improve people's quality of life. And typically, that comes through communication and socialization. We know that it reduces social isolation. We have some evidence that it could maybe help and improve mood disorders,” Dixon said.

“I think a lot of the reason why people end up being hesitant to come in, I mean from my own personal observations and discussions with patients, is that for the most part, people don't really know what they're missing and that makes it difficult to prioritize.”

It often takes a nudge from a significant other to get the person with hearing loss to get treatment. “It's oftentimes people who I see who are brought in after years or decades even of treatable hearing loss. It's their communication partners that really push that forward because it's frustrating to talk with somebody who doesn't hear everything that you're saying, and you have to repeat yourself. But it's not so frustrating for that person with hearing loss because they just miss it, right?”

Dixon said the first step is just getting a hearing test. “There's really nothing lost except for that individual's time to get a hearing test with one of our audiology professionals. And then, from there, having a discussion with a surgeon where it's warranted, having medical evaluation by different ologists or rheumatologists or having a hearing aid or other device evaluation discussion. These are not commitments. They're just information gathering. And it's really surprising how few people take advantage of that opportunity.”

The reasons for that reluctance include the fear of appearing older. But if a person has certain symptoms, they need to be tested. “One of the things that my patients most often tell me brought them in for testing is comments from family members and other communication partners that they don't hear well. Oftentimes that the individual who has the hearing loss can be somewhat oblivious to how much they're missing,” Dixon said.

Signs that a person needs ear evaluation:

  • Needing to turn up volume higher than in past.
  • Others complain about volume.
  • Increased ringing in ears.
  • Ear pain.
  • Ear drainage.
  • Feeling of fullness in ear.
  • Dizziness.

Dixon said an evaluation due to one or more of those symptoms can help put hearing issues into perspective. “I think it makes it more real when we attach numbers to it and can discuss where they fit relative to their peers, what, you know, percentage of words they seem to be missing in conversation.”

That discussion may validate concerns and allow the person to take the next steps. “That’s a really helpful thing. And then to understand the reasons why that might be happening. Treatment may include surgical intervention or hearing aids. We offer kind of the full spectrum of services all along the whole hearing care pathway,” he said of the MUSC Health Ear, Nose and Throat team.

“I know our audiology group is outstanding. And because MUSC is a very highly-specialized regional center for hearing care, they are the first line of defense, oftentimes, in terms of seeing patients and routing them in the right direction.”

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