Hearing loss typically happens gradually as a person ages, so it might not be immediately recognized and it might be assumed it has to be tolerated.
However, perceived hearing loss should be addressed without delay as the ability to hear is important for individuals to feel confident and connected to the people in their lives, says an expert from global health system Cleveland Clinic.
Ahead of the International Day of Older Persons last October 1, her message is that just because a condition is common for older adults, it does not mean it is acceptable.
The United Nations launched the International Day of Older Persons in 1990 to encourage countries to draw attention to and challenge negative stereotypes and misconceptions about older persons and ageing, and to enable older persons to realize their potential.
Cleveland Clinic audiologist Sarah Sydlowski, AuD, PhD, MBA. says, “There are many benefits to addressing hearing loss. Hearing aids can help a person to maintain and even enrich relationships with friends and family members.”
She adds, “If you’re experiencing hearing loss, you probably expend a lot of energy to stay connected. You have to think about how you position yourself or who you sit next to. You have to focus intensely so you don’t miss key parts of a conversation. This extra effort may cause you to skip activities you used to love because they are no longer enjoyable, which in turn could lead to social isolation or even depression.”
Dr. Sydlowski says that while hearing loss can occur suddenly, it typically happens gradually as a person ages. “At first, you might assume people around you are mumbling more. Hearing loss isn’t like vision loss where it’s obvious things are blurry,” she explains.
In many cases other people may notice hearing loss before the individual does because those people realize they need to repeat what they have said or they notice that they have been misunderstood.
Dr. Sydlowski, who is also President of the American Academy of Audiology, encourages individuals to get a hearing test with an audiologist as soon as they or a loved one notice hearing loss symptoms. Even better, she says, individuals should get a hearing test at least once after age 50, and every few years thereafter, even if hearing loss hasn’t been noticed.
“It’s easier to acclimate to hearing technology when you start using it earlier,” she says. “The transition to a hearing aid is easier when hearing loss is milder. It’s less effort for your brain to get used to the different sound quality.”
Dr. Sydlowski points out, however, that often people choose not to get help despite knowing they have experienced hearing loss. She says barriers that prevent people from taking action may include:
- Stigma: Individuals fear that people will judge them for wearing a hearing aid. “We need to get rid of these stigmas,” Dr. Sydlowski says. “Today, people frequently have an earbud in one or both ears, so I hope that will lessen the hearing aid stigma.”
- Discomfort: Individuals might assume that a hearing aid will not be comfortable. However, Dr. Sydlowski says, in practice comfort is rarely an issue.
- Cost: Hearing aids are not necessarily covered by insurance. However, cost should not be a barrier, Dr. Sydlowski says, adding that there is technology available at a variety of price points and an audiologist can help find an option that will be best for the individual’s hearing and finances.
- Hoop-jumping: Hearing screenings are not part of most primary care visits and many primary care physicians do not realize that hearing loss can be both prevented and treated. An individual may need a referral for an audiologist and, for many people, the extra time and expense are enough to keep them home.
Dr. Sydlowski points out that people can move past these barriers by acknowledging that getting help for hearing loss isn’t beneficial only for them, but for their loved ones too. If a person is unable to participate fully in a conversation, it could affect the quality of their relationships.
Hearing helpers exist for every level of hearing loss
There is a spectrum of hearing loss that runs from mild to profound, and audiologists have many options to help, says Dr. Sydlowski.
“For most people, hearing aids are the best option. They aren’t designed to restore normal hearing but rather to help enhance your hearing in different environments. Over time, if your hearing decreases, your hearing aid may become less effective and an implantable device like a cochlear implant may be a better option,” she says.
Dr. Sydlowski explains that audiologists measure whether a hearing aid is putting out the right amplification and they can measure how well people understand speech with their hearing aid to determine if there’s something better they could be using.
She adds that merely having a device is not enough — it has to be the right device and programmed correctly.
“You have one set of ears for a lifetime and they are worth an investment,” Dr. Sydlowski concludes. “Take action because the benefits far outweigh the perceived challenges.”