By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
Losing your hearing can be a scary experience. The unknown or panic of a sudden decrease in hearing ability can send many people into depression or nervousness. On the other hand, hearing loss can be so gradual that some people don’t notice the effects until it starts to affect their quality of life. Hearing is a complex process of picking up sound, processing it and attaching meaning to it. The ability to hear is critical to understanding the world around us and connecting us with loved ones and colleagues.
“People associate hearing loss with aging and getting older, or they worry about the stigma attached using amplification and worry that others will judge them,” said Ashley Eisen Graney, an audiologist at Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center.
Graney highlights five things people should know about hearing and hearing loss.
1. It doesn’t resolve on its own
Many times people will strain to hear something but are too embarrassed to tell their friends or family. They continue to let the problem fester until they can’t cover it up. Medical experts say because there is an emotional component to losing hearing, some patients are slow to coming to doctor when they began to feel like there is a problem. About one-third of people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 75 have some degree of hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. For those older than 75, the problem is worse: approximately one in two people in this age group suffer from hearing loss.
Most people wait on average 15 years before they obtain amplification or see a specialist.
“People need to go see an audiologist the moment they start having hearing issues,” said Graney. “When you feel like you are to the point where you are struggling to hear conversation or feeling like people around you mumble, you should have a hearing evaluation completed to at least obtain a baseline hearing test.”
“Sometimes it is just a middle ear problem, genetics, or a structural abnormality. It doesn’t always have something to do with you getting older,” said Graney.
2. Just because you hear some things doesn’t mean you have normal hearing
There are those who have the most common type of high-frequency hearing loss — they are able to hear deep loud voices, but struggle to hear birds tweeting and consonant sounds like “s” “f” and “th.” These high-frequency losses make it so you can hear the speaker talking but can’t always make out what is being said because of an inability to hear certain speech sounds. This problem is especially noticeable in a crowded noisy environment. The ear process high-frequency sounds through cells in the lower part of the cochlea, which translates noise into electrical impulses sent to your brain. Audiologists say because those cells that hear low frequency sound are around the top of the cochlea they are more protected so high-frequency hearing loss often occurs first because those cells are exposed to the most sounds during the course of a lifetime.
“High-frequency hearing loss is easily explained with orchestral instruments. For example, with a high-frequency loss you can hear a tuba but you wouldn’t be able to hear a flute as you may remember it,” said Graney.
3. Hearing aids are so much better now
In the 21st century, there have been significant advances in hearing aid devices. Manufacturers have made improvements by developing hearing aids that are more effective for various types of hearing loss. That includes those specifically made for high frequency hearing loss, along with better feedback (whistling management) management, noise reduction, rechargeable batteries and connectivity to Bluetooth technology (a.k.a cell phones and computers).
“Some hearing aids today are just a tiny device that sits behind the ear with an invisible wire that fits inside the ear. Because there are hearing aids that connect to every brand of cell phone, they essentially function as both a hearing aid and Bluetooth headset. There are even apps you can download to give a degree of control over your hearing aid,” said Graney.
4. Watch for some key symptoms of hearing loss
When someone first begins to experience decreased hearing, certain symptoms come to the forefront. That includes muffling of speech and other sounds, difficulty understanding words especially when in a noisy and crowded background, trouble hearing consonants and frequently asking others to speak slower, clearer or louder.”
Another symptom people are frequently unaware of is withdrawing socially. “My patients will frequently report that they simply avoid certain social situations because they know they won’t be able to hear and participate, so they stay home or don’t participate,” she said. This is called social isolation and is actually very concerning. It affects both mental and physical health.
5. Beware of loud sounds
It doesn’t have to be incredibly loud for damage to happen to your ears. Listening safety is determined by a ratio of how loud the sound is to how long you listen to it. Many people participate in activities that produce harmful sound levels, such as attending loud sporting events and music concerts, and using power tools, which repeated over time can cause hearing loss depending on your own individual susceptibility.
“If you are in a situation where you have to hear gun noise, even one exposure can cause a decline in certain frequencies. That is one of the reasons why you hear about hearing loss in the armed forces,” said Graney. “No matter what age, if you are hunting, you should be wearing some type of ear protection.”