It Takes Two to Tango

Hearing loss and the thirdparty disability

About 15 years ago, I was working at a seaside town when a wealthy American yacht owner came into the clinic, dragged in by his attractive partner who was less than half his age. He’d lost around half of his hearing and, much to his partner’s frustration, had refused any kind of assessment or treatment. “She can just speak up!” he insisted.

The couple were planning a trip to Polynesia however a few months later, the gentleman came back into the clinic. The trip never happened. The young lady had left him and he was finally motivated to address one of the root causes of his relationship breakdown… his hearing loss.

For me, one of the most frustrating things about working in hearing health care is the depth of avoidance and denial people face when dealing with the challenges of their hearing loss for the first time. A big part of the problem is that the profession has failed to shift the outdated stereotype of the ‘big beige banana’ hearing aids. In Audiology, we see one of the lowest treatment rates I can find of any medical profession. If only more people knew that today’s devices are smaller and smarter than ever before. If only more people knew that the benefits of treating hearing loss are relatively immediate, often profound and may reduce the risk of cognitive decline in later life.

Hearing loss affects friends and family too

What makes hearing loss uniquely different to just about every other health condition is the impact it has on other people. When you have hearing loss, it doesn’t just affect you; it affects anyone wanting to have a conversation with you and in particular, your closest loved ones.

In 2012, researchers at The University of Queensland investigated the extent to which spouses of people affected by hearing loss acquired a ‘third party disability’ as a result of their partner’s hearing impairment. Third party disability is defined as the disability and functioning of family members as a result of the health condition of their significant other. The study included 100 couples and the criteria for taking part was that one spouse had hearing impairment and the other had normal hearing. What emerged was that 98% of the normal-hearing spouses were found to have at least some degree of third party disability as a result of their partner’s hearing loss. In severe cases, this commonly resulted in lower relationship satisfaction as reported by the spouse. I find that the results of this study are echoed in my audiology practice. Spouses are often the much more motivated individual to have their partner’s hearing loss treated.

The dangers of conversation breakdown in a relationship

When conversation becomes challenging and it becomes necessary to repeat ourselves often, the tendency is to just stick to the basics. Nuances and subtleties are often diminished; we do away with verbal affection and we avoid talking because it’s difficult and tiresome. We don’t bother telling little jokes or funny stories anymore because timing and suspense are so important to the effect. The richness of communication disappears and we end up sticking with the mundane. Inevitably, this leads to a weakening of the human connection and there is a real danger of isolation setting in, even within a long-term relationship such as a decades-long marriage.

The impact of untreated hearing loss on cognitive health has gained significant research attention in recent years. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that the globally-recognised Lancet Journal cited hearing loss as the number one risk factor for the development of dementia. It also revealed that hearing loss is associated with a 30-40% acceleration in cognitive decline. The good news is, studies have shown that treating hearing loss increases cognitive function. After just two weeks, there are significant increases in selective attention, memory recall and processing speed. I can only speculate as to how much harmony these kinds of improvements would restore in a relationship dealing with hearing loss in one of the partners.

The graph below illustrates ten areas of life improvement that are experienced by wearers of hearing devices and their family members, when hearing loss is treated. Almost all the factors show that family members are more satisfied than the person receiving the treatment!

Help is available and it’s far better than you think

For many, the idea of treating hearing loss can feel daunting. If you suffer from hearing loss, I’d encourage you to consider the wider implications of letting it go untreated. But if you do seek treatment, and wear your devices which I promise, are not the ugly old hearing aids of days gone by, you will experience a fuller participation in life. Plus, you’ll be enabling those around you to better share it with you.

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