While COVID-19 most frequently affects the lungs, other parts of the body may also be impacted, such as a loss of taste and smell. For a smaller number of people, instances of hearing loss are emerging, according to the International Journal of Audiology.
Of equal or greater concern is that some people with hearing loss may be opting to delay treatment, in part due to COVID-19 exposure concerns with in-person medical appointments for testing and care. While hearing aid sales reached nearly 3.5 million in 2020, that represents a significant decline compared with the previous year, which may be attributed to the fact that the average person with hearing loss waits seven years before seeking treatment.
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition among older Americans, affecting more than 48 million people nationwide. Hearing loss may become even more widespread in the future, in part because of an aging population and the frequent use of earbud headphones, which can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss.
Here are five tips to consider related to hearing loss during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future:
• Prevent hearing loss before it starts.
Our ability to hear declines naturally as we age, especially among people over 65. But exposure to loud sounds — both one-time and cumulatively — can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss.
To help reduce your risk, consider limiting exposure to loud sounds and the use of earbud headphones, especially when listening to music or movies on a mobile device. Consider over-the-ear headphones — especially models with noise-canceling properties — as those are generally considered a better option than earbuds. When using earbuds, follow the “60/60 rule”: listen for no more than 60 minutes at a time and at no more than 60% of the player’s maximum volume.
• Look for signs of hearing loss.
For some people in the early stages of hearing loss, there is an expectation — and hope — the problem will resolve itself or improve eventually. The reality is hearing loss tends to gradually worsen over time without treatment.
Unlike a broken bone or other physical injury, hearing follicles don’t regrow or repair themselves. Once someone has hearing loss, the most effective treatment is usually hearing aids. Common signs of hearing loss include turning up the volume on the TV or radio to levels that others find too loud, having trouble hearing people on the phone, and difficulty following conversations in noisy environments.
• Evaluate testing options.
Online hearing screeners can help people identify potential signs of hearing loss and start the process for accessing care.
Meanwhile, some primary care physicians are starting to offer hearing testing, making it more convenient to follow recommended guidelines, which include being screened at least every decade through age 50 and then at three-year intervals thereafter. Consider checking with your employer-sponsored or Medicare Advantage health plan, which may be able to connect you with an audiologist or hearing health professional for testing.
• Recognize the risks of avoiding treatment.
While some people may think diminished hearing is merely a nuisance or a sign of aging, it can have a significant impact on people’s overall health and well-being.
For instance, people with hearing loss are 32% more likely to be hospitalized and have a 300% greater risk of falling, according to the Better Hearing Institute. For people in the workforce with hearing loss, the condition reduces household income by an average of $12,000 per year; the use of hearing aids can mitigate up to 50% of that loss.
Importantly, people with hearing loss who obtain treatment experience a lower risk of falls, dementia and depression, as compared to individuals who delay treatment.
• Consider virtual care and home-delivery options.
Some new regulations and companies are changing the way hearing aids are sold, helping to bring down costs. Through home-delivery options, people may be able to purchase quality, custom-programmed hearing aids for less than $1,000 per device — a potential savings of up to 60% compared to devices sold through traditional channels.
As technology has improved and programming has become more precise, people with hearing test results may be able to order custom-programmed hearing aids, have them delivered to their doorstep and then adjusted virtually through a smartphone, potentially avoiding the need for in-person appointments with hearing health professionals.
About 80% of people who could benefit from using a hearing aid do not actually use them, often because of cost, limited knowledge, or lack of access to a hearing health professional. By considering these tips, people may be able to maintain or improve their hearing health and contribute to their overall wellbeing.
Diane Nens is an audiologist and Senior Clinical Director for UnitedHealthcare Hearing.