One million Minnesotans are missing — and they just don’t know it.

I didn’t know until I was 55. I was leading an intense coaching session with the management team at a large paper company, as I did with many company management groups.

When the meeting ended, I reviewed what the meeting had produced with the executive who’d invited me. She said the meeting went well but that I had failed to answer a number of questions. I was stunned. Answering questions is what they paid me to do.

She figured out what was happening. I led the meeting from the center of the room. It’s a very powerful set-up for any teacher, lecturer or storyteller. But when I would walk into the audience, then turn my back to return to the center, I didn’t seem to hear people behind me asking questions, or even making jokes in response to things I’d said. This was embarrassing. I never knew this was happening.

During breaks, some executives had commented to her about it, but no one else spoke to me. My host had just one comment: “Better get your ears checked, Jim.”

I got tested immediately and was wearing hearing aids in both ears seven days later — and ever since, for 20 years now. I was suffering from a fairly typical but severe form of high-range hearing loss that was destroying my ability to hear and understand what other people were saying. It’s because of these hearing aids that I am still working, speaking and writing today.

One out of five Minnesotans, using U.S. national averages, suffers from hearing loss significant enough to require treatment. It’s called ARHL, Age-Related Hearing Loss. Few of these Minnesotans know they have ARHL, but it’s very likely that someone around them does know something is wrong but says nothing.

Those afflicted are missing in action, every single day, silently suffering the effects of this insidious process, alone. Victims suffer isolation; they can’t hear to participate. The corrosive part is that nobody really notices, or, if they do, they seldom say anything to the sufferer. But they’ll turn to a colleague, a relative, or a mutual friend and whisper, “What’s wrong with Tom today? Is he angry about something? He’s not usually this quiet.” Tom neither hears nor knows.

My father was a well-known figure in the Twin Cities for many years, as a popular square-dance caller, music arranger and conductor, school band and choir teacher, union activist, spirited debater and teacher of Polish. He began losing his hearing at about the same age I did.

Once someone who lit up every room he entered, he gradually withdrew, sat in the corner and faked it. He nodded a lot, said “yes” a lot, even “thank you.” It was his loving daughters who spotted it. They would ask questions and he would give nonsensical answers. “Yes, I’m very glad to be here,” he would often say in answer to any question or comment. My sisters tested him by talking in normal tones of voice. He couldn’t hear it. When talking to him directly they would put their hands over their mouths so he couldn’t read their lips and had no idea they were speaking to him.

Every person with hearing loss learns to read lips early on. It’s often 85 percent of their understanding.

One obvious clue that someone is suffering hearing loss can be when the TV or radio is way too loud or they’re caught watching TV with the sound turned off completely. If you get really good at lip reading, you can fool a lot of people.

Minnesotans, like the rest of Americans, basically ignore this destructive disease rather than urge victims to get tested. How can this be in a state renowned for its medical prowess and scientific expertise? Minnesota does have a woefully underfunded state commission, the Minnesota Commission on Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans (www.mncdhh.org), whose fundamental assignment is to recover and reignite the lives of millions of missing Minnesotans plus other facets of the deaf and hearing loss problems.

My father’s story, all too typical, ends badly. He refused to wear the two hearing aids my sisters pushed him into getting. The clanging of dishes bothered him. Routine sounds for the rest of us jarred him. He was a child prodigy on the piano yet his hearing aids so overwhelmingly amplified piano music when he played that he stopped. Eventually he stopped speaking. This vivacious, intelligent, talented, center-of-the-action man simply went silent. He actually refused help.

Something like this is likely happening to someone in every Minnesota family, to someone you care about.

Know somebody in their late 40s or beyond who seems to be withdrawing, less involved than he/she used to be? Remember that number: one in five. Hearing loss and the personal isolation it causes is widely considered to be one of the great contributors to Alzheimer’s disease.

OK, so thanks a lot, Jim, for bringing us this downer information during the holidays.

On the contrary, I bring you glad tidings. The greatest gift you can give the people you care about is to get them tested. Find out with them if this might be the root cause of their growing isolation. Help them rejoin their families, their communities, the lives they were losing without knowing why. The same studies that correlate Alzheimer’s with hearing loss and isolation also validate that those who get their hearing loss treated are likely to suffer less future decline.

The job is a big one. We would be looking toward recovering the connectedness, spirit, energy and joy in living for 1 million Minnesotans of all walks of life. What a gift that would be.

Jim Lukaszewski is a national communications expert based in the Twin Cities.