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Once upon a time, before people knew any better, they thought that hearing loss was simply a part of growing older -- something not worth doing much about.
They were wrong.
Turns out, hearing loss isn't fussy about age. More than half of us with hearing loss are still in the workforce. And hearing loss is a much bigger deal than we ever imagined. We need to take it seriously.
As one of the most common chronic health conditions in the United States today, hearing loss affects baby boomers, Gen Xers and every other age group. And, when left unaddressed, hearing loss affects just about every aspect of a person's life.
The big surprise is that hearing loss has been linked to other health conditions.
Hearing loss can have unwelcome companions -- like heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, depression, cognitive decline, dementia or Alzheimer's disease, increased risk of falling and increased hospitalizations.
In fact, as studies on the link between hearing loss and other health conditions mount, we've begun to see how our ears -- and specifically how our hearing -- connect to our whole body and health.
Here's what we know:
The very best thing to do for hearing loss is to find out if you have it as soon as possible. Then take it seriously. If deemed appropriate by a qualified hearing health care professional, treat it. Hearing aids can benefit the vast majority of people with hearing loss.
Cardiovascular and hearing health are connected. Studies show that a healthy cardiovascular system positively affects hearing. Conversely, inadequate blood flow and trauma to the blood vessels of the inner ear can contribute to hearing loss.
Some experts even believe that because the inner ear is so sensitive to blood flow, it is possible that abnormalities in the cardiovascular system could be noted here earlier than in other less sensitive parts of the body -- making the ear a kind of "window to the heart."
People with diabetes are about twice as likely to have hearing loss as those without it. Recent studies show a link between hearing loss and dementia, leading many experts to stress the importance of addressing hearing loss.
One study found that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing.
Another found that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults, and that those with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than older adults whose hearing is normal.
People who don't address hearing loss are more prone to depression.
Fortunately, studies show that people with hearing loss who use hearing aids often have fewer depressive symptoms, greater social engagement, and improved quality of life.
Hearing loss is tied to a three-fold risk of falling. One study found that even people with mild hearing loss were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling.
A 2013-published study found that older men with hearing loss had a greater risk of dying, particularly from cardiovascular causes.
But men and women who used hearing aids -- even though they were older and had more severe hearing loss -- had a significantly lower mortality risk than those with hearing loss who did not use hearing aids.
Most doctors don't include hearing health as a routine part of annual exams. So ask to have your hearing tested. Once you reach middle-age, it makes sense to include hearing tests as part of your routine annual care.
It seems that the "hearing bone" may be connected to more than we originally thought. For more information on hearing loss, visit www.betterhearing.org.