Age-Related Hearing Loss Dealing with Hearing Loss
More than any other mark of aging, hearing loss requires that you maintain a sense of humor. A person with impaired hearing says an inappropriate remark in conversation because he or she misheard the discussion only to be the recipient of group laughter at his or her expense. We are embarrassed but try not to show it; maybe even laugh along at ourselves. What Did You Say? Dealing with Hearing Loss
More often than not, hearing loss is a gradual deterioration so that the impaired person may be in denial. This creates a difficult situation for all involved. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced hearing loss yet but my 94 year old father has provided me with a boatload of stories and mixed emotions.
My Dad says background noise makes it difficult to hear a person talking to him. He also has difficulty following a conversation when two or more people talk at the same time. Like most people with hearing loss, he admits to sometimes pretending to follow every word of a conversation that he has trouble following. He also nods and laughs a lot when people talk to him, hoping they don’t ask him a question. People always seem to be mumbling their words. Sound familiar?
According to WebMd, about a third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing problems. That statistic increases to 43 percent with age. Yet only one in five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually wears one.
At 62, I’m showing signs of hearing loss. There are times when I ask my wife to repeat what she just said. I believe she speaks too softly now. I also have some trouble hearing clearly on a cell phone. These are common signs of hearing impairment; I will soon fall victim to serious hearing loss.
Like many baby boomers, I blame Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bruce Springsteen for my current and future hearing woes. Boomers were the first generation exposed to loud music for hours at a time. My parent’s generation listened to classical music, jazz and Frank Sinatra—all soothing to the ear. Boomers were subjected to between 110 dB and 120 dB and maybe as high as 140 dB if you were in the front rows of the rock concert. The decibel (dB) is a unit to measure the level of sound.
To demonstrate how loud a rock concert is, consider that normal talking is 40 dB to 60 dB. The softest sound that some humans can hear is 20 dB or lower. Headphones have a maximum volume set at 105 dB. I would think Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin took me beyond 140 dB on more than one occasion.
How Aging effects Hearing
The human ear is like any other body part, aging and overuse can damage it. The inner part of the ear contains tiny hair cells (nerve endings). The hair cells change sound into electric signals. Then auditory nerves carry these signals to the brain, which recognizes them as sound. These tiny hair cells are easily damaged by loud sounds. Over time, aging, repeated exposure to loud noise and music can cause hearing loss.
Aging affects the inner ear which impairs hearing. These include:
- changes in the structure of the inner ear
- changes in blood flow to the ear
- impairment in the nerves responsible for hearing
- changes in the way the brain processes speech and sound
- damage to the tiny hairs in the ear that are responsible for transmitting sound to the brain
The most common form of age-related hearing loss is presbycusis, in which the ability to hear high-pitched sounds gradually decreases. Noise-induced hearing loss, the second most common type, occurs when you’re exposed to loud sounds over time. In both cases, the ability to hear high-frequency sounds usually is lost first. You may have difficulty hearing hard, high-pitched consonants like “S” or the voices of women or children.
High blood pressure and diabetes contribute to hearing loss. Medications that are toxic to the sensory cells in your ears (for example, some chemotherapy drugs) can also cause hearing loss.
Most older people have a combination of both age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss.
Coping with Hearing Loss
The bad news is that no one knows how to prevent age-related hearing loss. The good news is there are remedies to help you hear well. Above all, if you have hearing problems, seek advice from a health care provider such as an otolaryngologist, an audiologist and a hearing aid specialist.
Cochlear implants are small electronic devices surgically implanted in the inner ear that help provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or hard-of-hearing. If your hearing loss is severe, your doctor may recommend a cochlear implant in one or both ears.
Bone anchored hearing systems bypass the ear canal and middle ear, and are designed to use your body’s natural ability to transfer sound through bone conduction. The sound processor picks up sound, converts it into vibrations, and then relays the vibrations through your skull bone to your inner ear.
Assistive listening devices include telephone and cell phone amplifying devices, smart phone or tablet “apps,” and closed-circuit systems (hearing loop systems) in places of worship, theaters, and auditoriums.
Lip reading or speech reading is another option that helps people with hearing problems follow conversational speech. People who use this method pay close attention to others when they talk by watching the speaker’s mouth and body movements. Special trainers can help you learn how to lip read or speech read.
Hearing loss is a frustrating inconvenience of aging. Towards the end of his life, my friend, Fast Eddie had serious hearing issues. He told me he was going to change his voicemail to: “Please hang up and text me.” He died before recording that message.
The thing about hearing loss is that no one can see it. Most people are so impatient they just assume that the person with hearing loss is being rude or slow. Your kids may be (unknowingly) impatient with you because they have easily communicated with you over the years when you were younger and now you’ve disrupted that communicative relationship.
My message for anyone experiencing hearing loss is to put quality of life ahead of stubborn pride. Take the plunge and wear a hearing aid; there is no downside.
By 75 and older, 48% of men and 37% of women experience hearing impairment. It’s cool to wear hearing aids; celebrity singers like Ariana Grande and Madonna wear ear pieces all the time on stage. Get with the program.
Dr. David Lereah