How many people do you know – or have seen – wearing glasses and contact lenses? Now compare this to the number you’ve come across that wears a hearing aid. The chasm is enormous.
And yet, the eyes and ears are both crucial senses. A study published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity journal this month – based on a sample of 9,885 adults aged 20 and above, between 1999 and 2012 – even found that those with hearing loss who do not wear hearing aids could be at risk of both dementia and early death.
All eyes and ears
Hearing loss and hearing aids should be seen in the same light as having weak eyesight and wearing glasses, according to two Dubai doctors. Dr Rashmi Fernandes is an ENT specialist in RAK Hospital, and Dr Akash Abdul Rasheed an ENT, head and neck specialist in Aster Hospital Muhaisnah.
Dr Fernandes explains that the eye and the ear both “get weaker as we age”, but the stigma involved in wearing hearing aids averts many people from making the right choice for their health and well-being.
Another myth she busts is that hearing loss is not exclusive to the elderly, and that young people are more prone to it these days, largely in part because of “ear buds and gaming gadgets that tend to be too loud”.
Loud and clear
The Lancet study suggests wearing hearing aids may promote both longevity and brain health, with researchers noting that “untreated hearing loss could affect social isolation and declines in physical activity and cognitive function”.
Dr Abdul Rasheed explains: “If people with hearing loss don’t using hearing aids, they will not only lose their hearing more, but also be down socially, as it’ll be hard for them to pick up words. They might withdraw from society, which can potentially lead to depression.”
The doctor adds that as hearing loss advances, confusion increases. In some cases, this makes people more prone to dementia later in life. “There are conclusive studies and randomised clinical trials that confirm hearing loss is directly related to an early onset of dementia, cognitive effects, behavioural issues, loneliness and depression.”
Dr Fernandes agrees, but adds The Lancet study’s other hypothesis – which links untreated hearing loss to death – requires “a lot more research in order to conclude conclusively that hearing aid use does in fact reduce mortality risk and promote longevity. Most of the time, hearing loss is detected in the elderly, a population that has other co-morbidities that can contribute to mortality,” she says.
All experts agree that quality of life will improve by treating hearing loss. And yet, hearing aids come attached with a perceived societal stigma, especially for younger patients, who instead choose to ignore tinnitus or suffer through impaired hearing.
For example, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 30 million people in the US aged 12 and older have hearing loss in both ears, but only 15 per cent of people who can benefit from hearing aids are using them.
“People worry because if everyone saw them wearing hearing aids, it would be known that they are having hearing loss,” notes Dr Abdul Rasheed.
The good news, he says, is that hearing aids no longer have be highly visible devices that go over the ear, as many imagine. Rather, introducing inner ear canal hearing aids could be the way to go.
These “invisible hearing aids” require no invasive surgery, are barely visible and can be taken on and off easily “such that others won’t notice it at all”, says Dr Abdul Rasheed.
UAE pharmacies also offer self-fitting, over-the-counter hearing aids and machines, with an April study published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, claims may be just as effective as those fitted by an audiologist, although expert advice in the long term is a must.