Are You Losing Your Hearing as You Age?

How to diagnose, address hearing loss
Are You Losing Your Hearing as You Age?

We often find it funny when we misunderstand what someone asks, and we answer a completely different question. But it’s no joke if that often happens to you because of hearing loss.

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If you are finding it hard to hear, you might struggle with some tough emotions. Hearing loss can make people feel old or embarrassed. That’s why it’s important to deal with the problem as soon as you suspect it’s happening. If left untreated, hearing loss can slowly isolate you from friends and family and keep you from participating in activities that you enjoy.

“Hearing loss is often a gradual process, and people don’t realize it’s happening,” says audiologist Craig Newman, PhD, Vice Chair and Section Head of Allied Hearing, Speech, and Balance Services at Cleveland Clinic.

“You may think other people are mumbling or not talking loud enough,” he says. “Or you might believe you hear correctly and respond to misinformation. For example, someone might ask if you have the time, and you might reach into your pocket and hand them a dime.”

Hearing loss and your social life

Losing your hearing can make you hesitant to participate in conversations, says Dr. Newman. “You may begin to withdraw from social situations and stop doing things you once enjoyed.”

Geriatric specialist Ronan Factora, MD, says that people with hearing loss are often afraid of doing something wrong.

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“They might stop going to church or stop participating in social activities or volunteer work,” he says. “Your quality of life can really go down.”

Don’t wait to get help

The earlier you get help the better. Here are three important tips:

  1. See a doctor as soon as you notice a difference in your hearing. “The longer you wait, the more difficult it may be to get used to the way the sounds and speech are amplified through hearing aids and to sort through all the background noise and focus on what you want to hear,” Dr. Newman says. “There’s also a higher risk of developing dementia as you get older, which could get in the way of learning how to use a hearing aid properly,” Dr. Factora says.
  2. Get a baseline hearing test once you turn 55. It’s important to do this even if you aren’t noticing problems. After that, you should have your hearing checked annually and your doctor can compare subsequent tests to the baseline, Dr. Newman says. If you are exposed to excessive occupational or recreational noise, you should have a baseline hearing test, regardless of your age.
  3. Talk to your doctor about sudden hearing loss at any age. A sudden hearing loss is considered an “ear emergency” Dr. Newman says.  There are certain instances in which you will need to see your doctor immediately, Dr. Factora says.

When hearing loss signals other problems

“Age-related hearing loss is slow and gradual,” Dr. Factora says. “If you experience sudden hearing loss, you need to seek help right away.”

Problems not related to aging can cause hearing loss. Be on guard for these symptoms:

  • A viral infection. Infections can sometimes cause a sudden hearing loss that your doctor will want to investigate.
  • Hearing loss in one ear only. Age-related hearing loss usually affects both sides equally, Dr. Factora says. If it affects only one ear, let your doctor know.
  • Ringing in the ears or dizziness. If your hearing loss involves tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears) or vertigo (dizziness or lightheadedness), you should also see a doctor right away. “Those symptoms may indicate Ménière’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear that affects both hearing and balance),” he says.

Better hearing aids

If you do find that your hearing is declining, it’s good to know that hearing aids are improving. In fact, over the last several years, hearing aid technology has improved significantly.

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“Hearing aids have become much more adaptable to the environment,” says Dr. Newman. “When you go from a quiet situation to a louder listening environment, they adapt. They’re also better at extracting the speech signal from background noise, which is important for improved communication function.”

The size and appearance of hearing aids is also much more discreet these days. “We now have ‘open-fit’ hearing aids, which are just a small tube and  dome that fits inside the ear attached to a miniature case behind the ear,” he says.

Stay in the conversation

Your hearing plays a key role in staying involved with those around you — especially as you age — so take steps to protect it.

“When you spend time doing social activities, you tend to age well,” says Dr. Factora. “If you’re cut off, you’ll become more isolated, which can lead to loneliness, depression and even physical decline.”

Dr. Newman adds, “Communication keeps you in touch with your environment. It creates a strong support system, which will make you happier. There’s also a relationship between cognitive function and hearing loss. It’s important to keep an active mind and body.”

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