Hearing loss in older adults: Some surprising health risks and how to protect yourself
Do you ever ask someone to repeat themselves because it sounds like they’re mumbling? Is it sometimes hard to follow a family conversation?
October is National Protect Your Hearing Month. It’s a good time to ask yourself these questions, especially if you’re over the age of 65. It might be time to get your hearing checked.
Hearing loss is common in older adults. It’s the third most common health condition in seniors after arthritis and heart disease.
Unfortunately, most of it goes untreated.
Of people aged 70 and older who could benefit from hearing aids, 6 out of 10 have never used them, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
My own experience with hearing loss was sudden. It was quite literally a wake-up call a couple of years ago. At the tail end of a head cold, I developed a painful earache that woke me one morning. It turned into sudden hearing loss, which I later learned was something of a medical emergency.
Antibiotic and steroid treatment eventually restored a lot of my hearing. But not all of it. A visit to the ear, nose, and throat doctor confirmed that I had some hearing loss. Chances are I’d had a gradual decline in hearing before my alarming experience but didn’t recognize it.
Learning more about hearing health has made me realize that it’s not just one more piece of the older adult wellness puzzle. It’s a critical piece. Leaving it out can result in serious health complications.
The more you know about hearing loss, the better your chances of coping with it in your own life. It’s not always apparent when someone’s hearing starts to fail, especially if that person is you.
Is hearing loss a normal part of aging?
A certain amount of hearing acuity does decline with age. It tends to occur gradually and in both ears, which means it’s often not recognized early on.
The extent of hearing loss varies a great deal, and some people reach old age with little to no impairment. But as many as half of older adults over age 75 experience some degree of it, and it may run in families.
Most hearing loss in older adults is sensorineural hearing loss. This is damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that transmit sound frequencies to the brain.
Aging is the most common culprit for this type of loss, also referred to as presbycusis. Other causes include noise-induced hearing loss, certain viral infections, head trauma, and some medications.
Once developed, sensorineural hearing loss is permanent. The good news is that there are things you can do to improve how you hear.
Most importantly, by seeing to the health of your hearing you can avoid some of the risks that make it a more serious problem.
Here are some signs of hearing loss worthy of your attention:
Some sounds seem louder than they should. Not all of those inner ear hair cells become damaged at the same time. Certain sounds activate the remaining healthy cells to respond more aggressively, and it might seem startling and distorted.
You don’t retain things people say to you. With hearing loss, you’re apt to miss key sounds that are needed to understand what you hear. If you try to hold fragments of others’ comments in your short-term memory, you don’t always have the ability to piece them together and make sense of them. So you forget.
You’re more easily distracted than you used to be. It takes a lot of concentration to understand a conversation with missing sounds, and your attention may lapse.
It’s hard to follow conversations, especially with more people wearing masks. You rely on lip reading and certain facial expressions to lend context to what others are saying. Masks make it much more difficult for those with hearing loss.
You might feel physically less stable. Your inner ear is responsible for balance, and it’s connected to your cochlea (hearing mechanism). When you experience hearing loss, your balance may at times feel off-kilter and you may be missing some of the auditory cues that orient you.
So you may be losing your hearing and not fully recognize it. Or you may feel like hearing loss is your problem and doesn’t affect anyone else. Maybe you feel like you’re doing just fine and don’t need to worry about your hearing.
Here’s what James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging, wants you to know: “I can guarantee you, as a person with a moderate to severe loss, that there is no way that you are doing fine and getting along fine if that hearing loss is not treated.”
Useful facts about hearing loss
Hearing loss is not just a decrease of sound; it’s also a distortion of sound. Certain sounds are made at a high frequency like consonants, which help make speech understandable. Low frequency sounds like vowels allow us to perceive sound. When high and low frequencies are lost, we may think we’re hearing words properly but our brains aren’t getting all the information we need. This results in distorted sound, which may seem like mumbling.
We begin losing our hearing in middle age. For most, the loss is very gradual. It’s easy to overlook and make minor compensations, like turning up the dial on the radio a few ticks. Loss increases with age. The greatest amount of hearing loss is in the 60-69 age group.
Hearing occurs in the brain. The brain’s auditory center receives information from the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, but it’s not able to make sense of what it receives if it isn’t getting satisfactory signals. Those signals need to be clear. Hearing loss distorts them.
Common noises could cause hearing loss. Excessive, loud noises damage those tiny hair cells in your inner ear. According to the Centers for Disease Control, prolonged exposure to noises above 85 decibels (dB) can impact your hearing – think of heavy traffic or a gas-powered lawn mower. Add power tools, being at a crowded sporting event, and live music events to the list of things that warrant ear protection. Normal conversation is about 60 dB, and shouting close to your ear can reach 110 dB. You’re wise to cover your ears when a siren speeds by – it’s around 120 dB.
Hearing loss doesn’t just affect your hearing — know the risks for other health problems
If you’re wondering about your hearing, get it checked. If you have hearing loss, get it treated.
Here are 4 compelling reasons why untreated hearing loss is a big risk to your health and quality of life.
It’s damaging to your brain health. Your brain processes sound continuously. If you’re missing sounds or not hearing quality sounds, your brain keeps searching for them. This causes listening fatigue because your brain has to work harder to make sense of what you do hear. The result can be cognitive decline and a higher risk of dementia.
It puts a strain on relationships. It can cause a breakdown in day-to-day communication, and be a source of real stress among couples and families. There are several reasons for this:
- The hearing person may have a very difficult time understanding your experience of hearing loss.
- The hearing person may mistakenly think you’re just not listening and feel frustrated or ignored.
- You and your family may decrease the activities you used to share, like outings or family gatherings.
- The hearing person might resent having to compensate for your hearing loss, such as repeating things you didn’t hear.
It can cause mental health problems. Depression is common among those with hearing loss. Your loss may make you more irritable and negative. You may withdraw socially because interacting with others has become so difficult.
Ways to cope with hearing loss
If you’re not ready or able to make the investment of time and money on hearing aids, there are some other options.
Learn and use more effective communication techniques. Let your caregiver, other family members, and friends know about your hearing loss. They can be your allies in learning to cope with it.
- Ask people to face you when they talk because seeing their facial expressions can help you to lip-read and better understand them.
- Background noise, like that in a restaurant, makes it harder to hear clearly, even for those without hearing loss. Try to sit with your back to a wall if possible to reduce it.
- Ask people to speak clearly with a little more volume, but not shouting.
- If you’re not actually watching TV, turn it off.
- Remember that this is an adjustment for your loved ones. Ask for patience all around, and lend it yourself.
Consider a pocket talker. This is an inexpensive personal amplifier device that helps you more easily understand conversations and television dialogue. It helps to reduce background noise. Learn more about how it works here. Pocket talkers can be a useful tool for caregivers to have available for their loved ones.
If using the telephone is difficult, consider a captioned phone. This device uses voice recognition technology to transcribe the caller’s words into captions for the hearing-impaired listener. The listener can still hear the caller’s natural voice, but will also see what’s being said on the phone display. This Captioned Telephone Service (CTS) is offered free of charge for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The phone itself is relatively inexpensive and can be used with or without hearing aids. There are also smartphone apps that display captions. Read more about captioned phones and the CTS here.
Resources for assistance with hearing loss
It’s a sad fact that original Medicare (Part B insurance) does not cover preventive hearing exams or hearing aids. The exception is that if your doctor orders a diagnostic hearing exam to determine treatment for illness or injury, Part B will cover it. Part B also covers cochlear implants provided that the client meets eligibility requirements.
Most major Medicare Advantage plans have at least one option that covers hearing aids. Check your policy for details. It’s nearly open enrollment time for Medicare, and if you need hearing aids you might consider opting for a plan that offers coverage.
If you’re an AARP member, get your hearing checked for free with this telephone exam, which should be used as a preliminary screening tool only. Make an appointment with a hearing specialist if this little test indicates a loss.
If you’re a Costco member, your membership entitles you to a free in-person hearing exam. (Disclaimer: I bought my hearing aids at Costco. The customer service, warranty, price, and convenience have been excellent and outweigh the hearing aid benefit my Medicare Advantage coverage provides.)
This handy brochure is a quick information guide for older adults and caregivers. Learn the basics about hearing loss and find more detailed information through links provided for national organizations.
Check out the Washington chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America for information about Seattle area activities and assistance. Earlier in 2021, they published this article in the Seattle Times on ending the isolation of hearing loss.
Your hearing health is clearly important to your quality of life and well-being. At SeaCare we’re prepared to support your special needs. Contact us for more information.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.