Face it: Hearing loss happens. Once we reach a certain age, our ears simply aren’t as sharp as they were in our youth. And that “certain age” is probably younger than you think: Studies suggest that about 40 percent of people ages 55-74 experience age-related hearing loss, and that 10 percent of people ages 45-64 are so severely impaired that they could benefit from hearing aids.
A lifetime of hair dryers, leaf blowers, surround sound systems and wailing guitars or mezzo-sopranos can cause the nerve cells in the inner ear that transmit sound signals co the brain to work less efficiently, making speech and other sounds harder to pick up.
But you can put the brakes on the decline, and it’s easier than ever to get a little help in the hearing department if you need it.
Preserve and Protect
“It’s important to not just throw our hands up and be resigned and just live with [hearing loss],” says Tabitha Parent Buck, AuD, professor and chair of audiology at A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Health Sciences in Mesa. Ariz. Her top tips for protecting what you’ve got:
- Use earplugs at concerts or when exposed to noise at home or work; safety headphones are helpful when using lawn equipment, electric saws and other loud tools. Keep earbud and headphone volume below 60 percent of your device’s capacity.
- Control chronic conditions such as diabetes, which left unchecked can damage the small blood vessels in the ear.
- Watch your meds. Ask your doctor whether a medication or combination of medicines you’re taking can affect hearing.
There’s a stigma that hearing loss—and hearing aids—go with old age. But today’s hearing assistance devices are nothing like the clunky, staticky aids of old. How so?
Most can be programmed to meet your personal needs. For instance, many can automatically adjust volume to reduce background noise and increase clarity, says audiologist Kate Marchelletta, AuD, at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
They’re much more discreet. Depending on your level of hearing loss and how much you’re willing to spend, no one has to know you’re getting any auditory enhancement. Completely-in-canal (CIC) devices virtually disappear inside your ear; others are the size of earbuds and come in flesh tones to blend with your skin.
There are more options to choose from than ever. Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) can offer an affordable alternative to traditional hearing aids, which can run up to $6,000 and may only be partially covered by health insurance or Medicare. PSAPs don’t address distortion and are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as medical devices. Still, if you can’t afford a hearing aid, “it’s better than not being able to communicate with your family,” Marchelletta says.
“People adapt to certain levels of hearing loss, so it’s hard to figure out that you’re not hearing like you did,” says ear, nose and throat specialist Ileana Showalter, MD, of Mercy Medical Corner in Baltimore. Here are a few red flags for hearing loss:
- You frequently ask people to speak slow, louder or more clearly.
- You listen to the TV or radio at a higher volume than you used to.
- You find it harder to follow a conversation when you’re in a noisy environment.
- It seems easier to avoid participating in conversations than trying to follow them.