by Dr. Matthew Seldine
Audiology is an art form as much as it is a science. And this delicate balance of these two disciplines is more important than ever for today’s patients who need audiologic care. For many, many years it has been a socially accepted standard that if someone was hard of hearing, or even suspected they were hard of hearing, they should probably have their hearing checked. If necessary, hearing aids would then be recommended to improve that person’s hearing. That was the end of the story. Now that person should be able to hear “normally,” or so thought the population at large. As years went by, hearing aids evolved to where they could be digitally adjusted. New technologies and research supported the flexibility of these new medical treatment solutions (yes, hearing aids are medical treatment solutions) that could be adjusted time and time again for patients in hopes of finding that magical perfect setting where they would not have to fiddle with the instrument. This stage of audiologic care is still in effect, with patients returning regularly to clinics across the country to recite where their hearing devices are falling short of beneficial. Of course, there are plenty of happy patients out there who do benefit greatly from their treatment solutions (i.e. hearing devices). But because of the vast amount of people who believe hearing devices are ineffective, for one reason or another, and because of the historical narrative emphasizing the ear as the only recipient of audiologic benefit, there are many people who could and should be seeking audiologic treatment who are not.
As new research emerges and our understanding of communication continues to evolve, we are beginning to comprehend just how vital and important audiologic care really is. This goes far beyond the trivial view of “It’s just a little hearing loss… I can get by…” or “Why do I need to hear all of those sounds…?” Hearing is FAR more important than that.
Many people today ask their audiologists how hearing devices can help them. Patients looking for help are focused, for understandable and obvious reasons, on learning how hearing devices function, whether they have all the appropriate features for their lifestyles, and how long the battery lasts, among a multitude of other factors and variables. Those are all relevant and important questions that need answers. However, few patients ever question the impact improved hearing may have on their lives as a whole. Believe it or not, plenty of patients reveal how disturbing, frustrating, or depressing it really is to be unable to hear. What these patients really mean when they say this is that they are unable to effectively communicate or participate in active communication. Socially, a hearing-impaired individual may begin to withdraw and disengage. They may lose interest or desire in once enjoyed interactions and activities. Commonly, disinterest precedes lack of physical interaction and willingness to participate.
Clearly, not being able to “hear” has a much greater impact on our whole-body health and overall life than most of us realized. Rather than avoid seeking help and treatment, rather than delay improving our hearing, and rather than believing hearing aids only serve the ears, I want you to understand that appropriately treating a diagnosed hearing impairment has far more benefits than simply being able to hear the shuffling of your feet while you are walking.
Here are a few ways in which treatment of hearing loss helps the entire body, including the brain, and not just the ears.
- Decreased risk of falls
- Increased mental and cognitive ability to focus
- Reduced listening effort
- Reduced feelings of depression
- Increased in special awareness, very important for safety
- Increase physical activity
- Improved attention
- Improved memory and recall of information
- Increase in feelings of independence and control over one’s life
Additionally, what all of these have in common is they support greatly increased social engagement which reduces feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression, and that… that right there… is how addressing and treating hearing impairment can help combat against the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Audiologists, and their use of hearing devices, do so much more than provide hearing-amplification assistance. The current American Academy of Audiologist President-Elect Catherine Palmer said it best: “We do not do hearing and balance tests. We do not sell devices. We change the course of cognitive decline for patients. Reduce the risk of patients falling. Prevent social isolation. Ensure social participation which increases life expectancy. Start a chain of events for a child that will promote reading, education, and employment. We decrease depression. Decrease medical adverse events. Decrease hospitalizations and readmissions. And we can save the health-care system over $3 billion per year.”
(General Assembly Speech at the Academy’s 2019 Annual Conference)