Why hearing loss is normal, but it still needs to be checked out
My 78-year-old husband has a problem that is becoming my problem. He is hard of hearing and will not consider hearing aids. I am tired of shouting and becoming increasingly annoyed. Do you have any suggestions on how to convince him to at least get his hearing checked that hopefully will lead to his agreeing to hearing aids? Many thanks. G.S.
You and your husband are not alone. Only 14 percent of those with a hearing loss use a hearing aid, even though we know it is a normal part of getting older. This age-related loss is called presbycusis and affects two out of three adults age 70 and older.
Presbycusis easily can become a family matter. I recall frequent visits to a retirement community in Florida. The televisions were blaring while the wives were shouting, “Turn down the TV!” This seemed to be repeated in one apartment after another, year after year.
There are several reasons for the reluctance to wear a hearing aid. Given our society’s insensitivity to aging and preference for youth, wearing a hearing aid may shout, “I am older.” For many this is okay; for others it’s an admission that creates a fear of being judged solely on their age. Others may lack the understanding or are indifferent to their irritating impact on other people. And for many, the reluctance may be due to the inconvenience and costs.
The question remains about how to convince someone with a hearing loss to use current technology to correct or compensate for it. One strategy is to emphasize the price we pay for ignoring hearing impairment.
Isolation: If you cannot hear a conversation or decipher the meaning of words, folks may stop speaking to you which means you are left out. Being ignored can easily lead to isolation which has many negative health implications. At the same time, others may make erroneous assumptions about your cognitive abilities because you are quiet, disengaged and older.
Falls: Hearing loss is considered a risk factor for falls. Based on data from thousands of participants, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that those with just a mild hearing loss were three times more likely to have a history of falling. One explanation is that people who cannot hear well might be unaware of their environment which makes them more vulnerable to tripping and falling. The inner ear affects balance and picks up clues from the surroundings such as an oncoming car. Hearing loss mutes those cues.
Dementia: If nothing gets your husband’s attention this might just do it. According to an emerging body of research, diminished hearing may be a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. That impact can occur with very low levels of hearing loss. “It seems like the relationship starts the moment you have imperfect hearing,” according to Dr. Justin Golub a leading researcher from Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital as quoted in the New York Times Magazine (October 20, 2021).
There is more evidence. Dr. Frank Lin and colleagues at John Hopkins University tracked dementia-free older adults for an average of nearly 12 years. The relationship between hearing loss and dementia was linear. Mild hearing loss doubled the risk, moderate loss tripled the risk and those with severe impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.
Since hearing loss can be caused by many factors, evaluation is important. Consider seeing an otolaryngologist, a physician who treats diseases of the ears, nose and throat, also often referred to as an “ENT.” Also consider an audiologist. Their preparation requires a doctor of audiology degree from an accredited educational institution and hours of clinical supervision. My sense is that most see the latter who also provide and sell the devices. There also is a recent trend for hearing evaluation and purchase online.
Thank you, G.S., for your good question. For anyone over 70, there is a good chance that you either have a hearing device or need one to have what is called “hearing health.” Feel free to share this column with your husband and good luck. Stay well and be kind to yourself and others. (Note: Anyone who wears a hearing aid, glasses and a mask realizes there is very little “real estate” behind one’s ear.”)
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity.