My 75-year-old brother, known in certain quarters as The Admiral, had gone to considerable trouble earlier this year to get his faulty hearing checked at the local VA hospital and eventually procured a set of (free!) hearing aids. I cheered his decision, despite my general mistrust of doctors, and extolled the auditory benefits I’d experienced in the three-plus years since I’d first planted that technology inside my own dysfunctional ears.
Out on the golf course the other day, however, I noticed he wasn’t wearing them. When I inquired, he complained about how they amplified the sound of the wind in his ears. Plus, he added, “Sometimes I just forget to put them in.”
I can only assume that TA’s hearing loss is less pronounced than mine; without my electronic ears, I’m rendered pretty much incommunicado. And, as I’ve chronicled in this space, that can lead to some complicated interactions. But I chose not to pursue the matter any further at the time, figuring that he’d work it out eventually. And it also occurred to me: Who am I to preach about the importance of following a doctor’s orders?
The results of a recent Duke University study, though, suggest that TA might want to overcome that ambivalence sooner rather than later. Researchers concluded that study participants at 60, 70, and 80 years of age who reported vision or hearing problems were more likely than those without these impairments to experience a litany of adverse effects, including physical limitations, social isolation, cognitive decline, depression, and even premature death.
Sixty-year-olds reporting both vision and hearing impairments, for instance, could expect to live about four fewer years than their less-impaired counterparts. And they’d probably spend 62 percent of their remaining years dealing with physical limitations, while those with strong vision and hearing faculties could expect to experience physical limitations for only 38 percent of their remaining lifespan.
Coauthor Angelique Chan Wei-Ming, PhD, noted in a statement that researchers analyzed these vision and hearing difficulties over time, reflecting “real-life cases, where some people would progress in their impairment over time, while others would remain stable or improve upon treatment of the underlying cause.” They also factored in existing chronic diseases among the participants.
“Vision and hearing impairments are often perceived as an unfortunate but inconsequential part of aging, and in many cases, remain undetected or untreated,” said Patrick Casey, PhD, a senior vice dean for research at Duke. “This important study by our researchers shows that early detection and timely management of vision and hearing impairments by older adults, their families, and health systems are key to increasing the quality of life for older adults.”
Early detection is one thing, of course, and timely management is quite another. My brother and I are outliers of a sort among hearing-impaired seniors because we actually followed up our diagnosis by securing our hearing aids. Only about 12 percent of our peers manage to do that, according to a recent University of Michigan survey, even when insurance covers part of the cost.
But TA’s ambivalence about wearing the devices might call for an intervention. It’s just that I’m not sure I’m a credible messenger. He might be able to hear me, after all, but who knows if he’ll actually be listening?