HEARING experts have warned that the stigma of deafness and hearing aids is leading a majority of sufferers to "put up" with hearing loss despite growing evidence linking it to dementia, depression and anxiety.
The potential consequences of untreated hearing problems are being highlighted as part of Tinnitus Awareness Week.
Around two thirds of people aged over 70 have some degree of hearing loss but only 15 per cent seek treatment despite significant advances in technology to restore hearing and increasingly discreet hearing aid designs.
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Alan Hopkirk, an audiologist and clinical director of the Invisible Hearing clinic in Glasgow, blamed a "massive stigma" around hearing loss and ageing.
He said: "We tend to think that hearing loss is something that happens to elderly people. But when someone has a dodgy hip, the doctor doesn't just say 'oh well, you're 70 - you'll just have to put up with it'."
Mr Hopkirk is hosting Scotland's first ever Hearing & Tinnitus Information Show at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow on Wednesday to showcase the latest innovations along with talks from expert speakers. He is keen that the event, which is free and open to the public, underlines the mental health impact.
Research in the US has shown that untreated hearing loss "accelerates" cognitive deterioration in dementia patients by as much as 40 per cent, compared to those who have their hearing corrected. One factor is thought to be "cognitive overload", whereby parts of the brain responsible for functions such as memory or analytical thinking scale back while the brain's auditory cortex - which processes sound - goes into overdrive to battle a loss of hearing.
Mr Hopkirk said: "People say things like 'I hear when I need to', but they don't. They develop tactics like lip-reading and guessing, and if we don't tackle this now there's a danger we are building up a reservoir of mental health issues for 10 to 15 years in the future.
"You have to intervene early when the patient will cognitively accept it. It won't stop the decline, but it seems to slow it down. That gives the patient a better quality of life for longer and it takes up less of an impact on social resources."
Meanwhile, tinnitus - a constant noise in the ears such ringing, hissing, or roaring - can trigger chronic anxiety. The condition affects thousands of people of all ages in Scotland, sometimes as a side effect of hearing loss but also due to ear infections, sustained exposure to loud noise, a head injury, or stress.
Mike Wells, senior audiologist at the Tinnitus Clinic in Edinburgh, said patients can be treated effectively with sound or cognitive behavioural therapy but that most were wrongly told by doctors that it is something they would "have to get used to".
He added: "For quite a lot of patients it may not be bothersome, but a number are just unable to filter it into their subconscious.
"They might have difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and their auditory focus narrows - like tunnel vision. As they become very preoccupied with monitoring the tinnitus, their anxiety increases."
Delia Henry, director of Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, said early intervention was "crucial".
She said: “Research shows that hearing loss doubles the risk of developing depression and increases the risk of anxiety and other mental health problems and that hearing aids reduce these risks.
"There is strong evidence to suggest that mild hearing loss doubles the risk of developing dementia – with moderate hearing loss leading to three times the risk, and severe hearing loss five times the risk."