One of the dangerous side effects of hearing loss is isolation. You have trouble hearing in social gatherings, so you tend to say home. Isolation can lead to depression, and depression is a risk factor for cognitive decline. Cognitive decline can end up being dementia.
You can’t cure hearing loss, but you can treat it. The most direct way is with hearing aids, but sometimes hearing aids aren’t enough to make socializing easy, and so the threat of isolation, depression, cognitive decline and dementia is still there.
Here’s another way to treat hearing loss: Get a dog!
I don’t mean a service dog — though they can be very useful for people with hearing loss. I mean a pet.
I’ve always liked long walks, and for years I distracted myself over three- or four-mile jaunts with recorded books. I listened to everything from Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina to novels by Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard.
But then I went deaf. Or, more accurately, my hearing declined to the point where I could no longer hear with headphones. I had sometimes walked with friends, but around the same time they dropped away for one reason or another. I was often left walking with my thoughts. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I’d even take a notepad along in case I thought of something particularly brilliant.
But thinking — brilliant thoughts or not — was not enough to get me out day after day. So I got a dog, a puppy. At first I was out four or five or six times a day, for short puppy-relief walks. As he got older, we resumed my long morning walk.
A dog is not for everyone. Weather is no deterrent to a dog’s need for a walk, as you can see in the picture of my dog Maxie on a sub-zero day. If you are unsteady on wintry days, you might want to consider a small dog. Or even a cat.
I like all kinds of weather, and I appreciate the push out the door on a cold day. A dog prompts conversations with strangers, and over the years I’ve made new friends, whom I know mostly by their dogs’ names, and a slew of casual acquaintances. It’s easy for me to hear in the open air, and I often have conversations at the dog park, or sometimes stopping for a chat mid-walk. We would talk about dogs at first, but as time went on, some of my dog friends became real friends, and then we talked about everything.
Plus, a pet has other health benefits. It can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and — thanks to its boundless, unconditional love — help reduce your stress. Also, dog owners get more exercise than non-pet owners, and the physical activity helps older dog walkers have greater mobility inside their homes than others, according to studies funded by the National Institutes of Health.
I miss listening to recorded books, but on the other hand, walks with my dog have helped me become much more aware of the sights around me — cherry trees in the spring, branches glittering with ice in the winter, a hawk soaring, a raccoon in the crook of a tree — and the sounds as well, including conversation.
A baby probably would have the same result — everyone talks to parents with babies — but I’ve had my babies, and my babies are not yet ready to have babies of their own. So for now I enjoy the benefits of a different kind of child — a furry, four-legged one.
Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.
This essay first appeared on AARP Health, August 17, 2016.