Older adults with untreated hearing loss have an estimated 50% greater risk of dementia, 40% greater risk of depression and almost 30% higher risk for falls compared with those without hearing loss over a 10-year period, according to a study published Nov. 8 in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Jennifer A. Deal, Ph.D., assistant scientist in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, and colleagues reached their findings after mining information from the OptumLabs Data Warehouse, a large de-identified healthcare dataset including administrative claims from 1999 to 2016 for people enrolled in large, private U.S. health plans and Medicare Advantage plans.

“We don’t yet know if treating hearing loss could help prevent these problems,” Deal said in a statement. “But it’s important for us to figure out, because over two-thirds of adults age 70 years and older have clinically significant hearing loss that may impact everyday quality of life. We need to better understand these relationships to determine if treatment for hearing loss could potentially reduce risk and help maintain health in older adults.”

A different study in the same issue of the journal, also by Johns Hopkins researchers, found that older adults with untreated hearing loss incur substantially higher total healthcare costs —  an average of 46%, totaling $22,434 per person over 10 years — compared with those who don’t have hearing loss.

Also at the 10-year mark, older adults with untreated hearing loss experienced about 50% more hospital stays, had about a 44% higher risk for hospital readmission within 30 days, were 17% more likely to have an emergency department visit and had about 52 more outpatient visits compared with those without hearing loss.

The relationship between hearing loss and other serious health issues may be one reason that untreated hearing loss increases healthcare utilization, the study authors said.

Another possibility is that hearing loss might affect patient-provider communication, said Nicholas S. Reed, AuD, the lead author on the healthcare costs study and a co-author on the other study with Deal. Patients who cannot hear their healthcare providers may have trouble communicating their symptoms, participating in conversations to develop a recommended plan for their health or following discharge instructions — key elements in participating in their own care.

“Knowing that untreated hearing loss dramatically drives up healthcare utilization and costs will hopefully be a call to action among health systems and insurers to find ways to better serve these patients,” Reed said in a statement.

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