6 surprising signs of hearing loss

Here are some important clues that it might be time to get your hearing checked.

Senior man with a headache putting his hands on his head

It drives your spouse crazy, but you frequently need to turn up the volume on the TV. Or you find yourself asking friends to say things again because you didn’t catch it the first time. Could it be your hearing? 

Age-related hearing loss is a common issue among people in their 60s and 70s, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). In fact, about 1 in 3 people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 — and half of those ages 75 and older — have trouble hearing.  

Problems with your hearing can sneak up on you slowly. And sometimes, people don’t want to admit that it’s time to do something about it. 

“There’s still a stigma that needs to be overcome,” says audiologist Larry Medwetsky, Ph.D., a retired professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Some people avoid visiting the audiologist because they don’t want to feel old, or they think hearing aids are too expensive or won’t fix the problem. 

But it’s never a good idea to ignore suspected hearing loss. “Untreated hearing loss is not a minor health problem — it’s a major issue that affects many people,” says Medwetsky. It can affect your physical health and your brain health too.  

Here’s what you need to know, and why it might be time to visit an audiologist to get your hearing checked. 

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What causes age-related hearing loss?

 Age-related hearing loss doesn’t have a single cause. Often, there is more than one factor at play.  

Changes in the inner ear — especially the gradual loss of tiny hair cells in it — are part of the problem. These cells are responsible for delivering sounds to the auditory nerve, which in turn sends signals to the brain. And once they’re lost, they don’t regrow. As more of these hair cells are damaged over time, their ability to send clear information to the auditory nerve weakens.  

But the ears aren’t the only things at play in your hearing. The brain is equally involved. In general, as you grow older, your auditory processing speed — how quickly your brain can take in sounds — slows down. That means the brain can’t always keep up with the fast pace of sounds coming in, especially speech.  

So when a grandchild talks at a clip, or if you’re in a crowded restaurant or another noisy place, the brain struggles to process each word as clearly and quickly as it needs to. That can also result in hearing troubles.   

The connection between hearing and health 

Many health conditions are associated with hearing loss. And some of those illnesses are more common in older adults. For example, you may be at higher risk of hearing problems if you have: 

Certain medications, such chemotherapy drugs, can also be toxic to the cells in your ears.  

Plus, hearing problems may affect your brain health and cognition. People with untreated hearing loss are at greater risk of dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging.  

What are some signs you might be dealing with hearing loss?

There are some obvious signs of hearing problems, such as being unable to hear conversations and music. But other telltale signs may be surprising. Watch for these lesser-known red flags of possible hearing loss. 

1. You need to take naps. “Hearing loss is exhausting,” says Medwetsky. When you’re not hearing all the important speech sounds, you’re at risk of not understanding. Plus, you have to work to fill in what you don’t hear. “The mental effort to try to capture everything becomes much harder,” he says. Many people with hearing loss may be exhausted by the end of the day. 

2. You fall more often. Untreated hearing loss has been associated with increased falls and balance issues. “The more hearing loss you have, the more likely it is that you’re going to experience a fall,” says Medwetsky. So treating hearing loss is especially important for older adults who are at risk of serious injuries from falls, such as a broken hip. 

3. You feel disconnected from loved ones. Communication is one of the most human things that you do, and it’s how you connect with others, says Medwetsky. People with untreated hearing loss may withdraw from family and friends because they avoid conversation or feel self-conscious.  

Perhaps you don’t ask your spouse or neighbor about everyday things, such as how their day was or what they have planned for the weekend. Or you avoid video chats with your adult children or grandchildren.  

Over time, this can create a sort of invisible wall between you and your loved ones. And that can harm your relationships. “For example, the divorce rate is significantly higher for individuals who have a serious hearing loss and don’t do anything about it,” says Medwetsky. 

4. You avoid activities you once enjoyed. Have you started turning down invitations because of the noise? People with hearing loss may first start to notice it in group settings. Restaurants, parties, and other noisy social gatherings can pose significant challenges. It’s no fun if you can’t follow a conversation because you can’t hear. And that can make you feel left out.  

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5. You have signs of memory loss or cognitive decline. According to a 2023 report in The Lancet, people with untreated hearing loss have a greater risk of dementia, compared with those with normal hearing. That’s another reason to get your hearing tested and get treatment.  
 
Devices to restore hearing can help by keeping you more engaged in the world around you. A 2023 review study in JAMA Neurology shows that using hearing aids or cochlear implants can slow down cognitive decline. 

  • Hearing aids are electronic devices you wear in or behind your ear to make sounds louder. You can get them by prescription. As of 2022, people with mild to moderate hearing loss can also buy them over the counter, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 
  • Cochlear implants are small devices that are surgically implanted in the inner ear. They can improve hearing in people with severe hearing loss, according to NIDCD. 

Hearing aids and cochlear implants can help you with your hearing issues. For the brain’s part, you can use BrainHQ. Multiple studies have shown that BrainHQ speeds up auditory processing (one large-scale study showed it sped it up by 135%) and helps people hear better in noisy places. And those changes in processing speed have been shown to improve memory and help people maintain their brain health.  

6. You feel anxious or depressed. Missing out on important conversations in your life can cause stress and cut you off from your social network. The prevalence of anxiety and depression is much higher in people with hearing loss, explains Medwetsky. That’s because they feel inadequate, frustrated, and socially more and more isolated. 

What do your next steps look like?

If you’re experiencing any of the issues above, it’s best to schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can help you find the root cause of your hearing loss, refer you to an audiologist to get your hearing checked, and figure out a treatment plan. 

If you’re dealing with anxiety and depression, your doctor may also refer you to a therapist. And if your doctor thinks you may be experiencing cognitive decline, they may schedule a series of tests.  

One thing you don’t need your doctor for: BrainHQ, a brain-training program designed by leading scientists that rewires the brain to help you think faster, focus better, and remember more. And it may be included at no cost with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today.  
 

Additional sources:
Age-related hearing loss stats, hearing devices:
National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders 
Health problems and hearing, dementia: National Institute on Aging 
Hearing loss and dementia study: The Lancet 
Hearing devices and dementia: JAMA Neurology 
OTC hearing aids: U.S. Food and Drug Administration