With life, comes change. How (and when) we respond to important changes, particularly in terms of our health, has a major impact on the quality of our lives and our ability to fully participate in the things that we enjoy. When change is fun or exciting, we tend to embrace it; but when change is uninvited, we often do our best to ignore it. Our primary senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch) are the basis for how we interact and engage with the world, yet we tend to take them for granted.

We do this at our own peril, as even subtle changes to our sensory input can have ripple effects throughout our daily lives. In the early going, we may be able to deny, explain away or rationalize smaller sensory-related disruptions and inconveniences, but over time small changes become bigger ones and their presence looms larger. While human nature may push us to convince ourselves and others that all is well, early intervention is often the key to creating positive rather than negative results.

So how do we keep smaller, more subtle sensory changes from becoming bigger, more life disrupting ones? It starts with paying attention and keeping track. This may be a one-time event, or a process with regular follow-up. For example, if we notice that our sense of smell or taste is off, we go to the doctor because we know that could mean we’re getting sick; if we notice our vision is blurry, we get an initial eye exam and likely have an annual one thereafter, because we recognize how important our sight is.

Interestingly, while we have normalized eyeglasses and regular eye exams as the highly beneficial interventions they are, we continue to largely ignore hearing care and fail to devote the same time and attention to another sense that is vital to our connection with the world around us. When it comes to hearing loss and seeking out treatment for the life-related changes that accompany it, inaction and/or a significant delay in treatment is the norm. As a result, quality of life is often unknowingly sacrificed.

What starts out as missed bits and pieces of conversations, or blaring televisions that frustrate loved ones, can escalate over time to more serious, life altering changes such as social isolation. As communication becomes increasingly effortful due to worsening hearing impairment, social isolation becomes increasingly likely. The mental effort required to follow a conversation, particularly in environments with background noise, becomes more and more tiring as hearing declines, leading us to avoid these types of scenarios.

Social withdrawal that may initially be occasional and confined to specific situations becomes the new default. Frustrating outings with family or friends can make attending social events seem more work-like than enjoyable and lead us to gradually stop participating altogether. Opting out of group conversations becomes more appealing than dealing with the exhaustion of trying to decipher what is being said, or risking the embarrassment of responding inappropriately.

The decision to disengage from social events leads to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation and reduces our need to engage the brain. Just like a muscle, our brain follows a “use it or lose it” principle, so the less we actively engage the brain, the more the stage is set for cognitive decline. Just as staying physically active is necessary for physical health, ‘feeding’ our brain the sensory input that it needs from all of our senses is an important aspect of our health-related and overall well-being.

Age-related hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition in older Americans, yet often remains undetected, underestimated, and neglected. When left untreated, hearing loss can lead to social isolation, depression, and cognitive decline — including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia — yet the average person waits 7 years before seeking out treatment for hearing loss. Research shows that early detection and treatment of hearing loss not only has the potential to slow the progression of cognitive impairment, but in many cases can improve cognitive function.

It is the highly significant impact that hearing has on quality of life that led Dr. Andrew Puttick to the Audiology profession. He has been providing exceptional hearing care to the Berkshire community for nearly two decades and enjoys the rewarding moments in which he can help his patients more fully reconnect with the world around them and happily re-engage with what they have been missing out on. If you have never had a baseline hearing test or suspect that you have had a change in your hearing, Dr. Puttick and the Greylock Audiology team can be reached at 413-443-4800 to help you establish or further your hearing care.

Editing contribution by Kelly L. Anderson