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Successful Aging: Age-related hearing loss can affect quality of life

Ed. note: Helen Dennis is traveling and will be back next week with a new column. This best-of piece first ran in 2013.

Q. Why do young people mumble? On a serious note, as a 75-year-old man who is healthy and vital, I am concerned that I am losing some of my hearing. The thought of wearing a hearing aid makes me feel old — and I don’t like it. How can I hear better and still feel a bit younger than 75? N.S.

Dear N.S.

Let’s first talk about hearing and aging. Hearing loss is part of the normal aging process that begins around age 50. The extent of the loss and when it occurs depends on the individual.

Untreated hearing loss in adults is considered a national epidemic, according to the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association. It affects about one-third of those 65 to 74 years and over half of those 75 and older, affecting more men than women.

Unfortunately, only 20 percent of those who might benefit from treatment actually seek help. Most delay getting a hearing aid on average of 10 years after their initial diagnosis.

Age-related hearing loss or presbycusis usually is slow, progressive and typically affects both ears. One of the first signs is having difficulty hearing and understanding speech in a noisy environment. Because the loss progresses slowly, older adults often ignore it.

Not being able to hear well as we get older is not necessarily a life sentence. According to a survey conducted by the National Council on the Aging, out of 2000 individuals who used hearing aids, more than half stated their relationships at home improved. They were less depressed and more socially involved than adults with hearing loss who did not use hearing aids. More than half of the family members reported observing improvements in the individual’s relationships with family members and people at work.

Individuals who had hearing loss and did not use a hearing aid or assistive device reported higher levels of anger, frustration and negative social effects. They lost interest in activities, missed instructions from their physician or pharmacist and were less likely to converse.

Social isolation is a frequent consequence.

A simple self-screening may help you decide what to do. The following test is from an article by Barbara Weinstein, professor and audiologist at City University of New York entitled “A Primer on Hearing Loss in the Elderly,” published in “Generations” by the American Society on Aging. It is recommended for practitioners to determine whether their clients should see an audiologist. It also seems useful for “ordinary folks.”

Use the following scoring: Yes = 4 points; Sometimes = 2 points; No = 0 points. If the question does not apply, omit it.

1. “Does a hearing problem cause you to feel embarrassed when meeting new people?”

2. “Does it make you feel frustrated when meeting new people?”

3. “Do you have difficulty hearing when someone speaks in a whisper?”

4. “Do you feel handicapped by a hearing problem?”

5. “Does a hearing problem cause you difficulty when visiting friends, relatives or neighbors?”

6. “Does it cause you to attend religious services less often than you like?”

7. “Does it cause you to have arguments with family members?”

8. “Does a hearing problem cause you difficulty when listening to TV or radio?”

9. “Do you feel that any difficulty with your hearing limits or hampers your personal or social life?”

10. “Does a hearing problem cause you difficulty when in a restaurant with relatives or friends? “

If your score is more than 8, Weinstein suggests seeing a professional who diagnoses and treats hearing disorders. Often this is an audiologist who has a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited university graduate program. Others include an ear, nose and throat doctor or an otolaryngologist specializing in head and neck conditions.

Don’t necessarily depend on this self-assessment. If you are missing out on conversations, see a professional.

Regarding your self-image, some hearing aids are extremely small and not noticeable. Think of 78 million baby boomers with an aging hearing system. With a long life, millions will be using assistive devices. Similar to wearing stylish glasses, wearing a hearing aid may just become cool.

Thank you, N.S. for your good question. I am sure many can relate. Continue to define yourself as a healthy and vital person. Technology is working in our favor.

Update 2023: Today hearing aids are available over the counter and over the Internet. Hopefully, a lot more folks can hear much better.

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