It’s a natural part of aging, yet confusion reigns. Here’s the advice you should stop listening to.
Getting lost in conversations with friends—and not in a good way? Ever missed a call because you didn’t hear your phone ring? Has your partner complained that the volume on your favorite Netflix show is too loud?
Roughly one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 experiences hearing loss, while nearly 50 percent of people older than 75 have difficulty hearing, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Men are nearly twice as likely to experience hearing loss than women.
Yet, many older adults find it a difficult topic to acknowledge or address.
Hearing loss is a natural aging process, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of, says Lina Velikova, M.D., of Disturb Me Not, who adds that it’s crucial to do something about it before it progresses and possibly affects your health in other ways.
Here are five common myths about this condition—and the facts that you need to protect your hearing for life.
Myth #1: Hearing Loss Is Annoying But Not Dangerous
As common as it may be among older adults, that doesn’t negate the fact that hearing loss can lead to more serious health consequences.
“Having difficulty hearing can eventually can lead to withdrawal and social isolation due to the anxiety and embarrassment around communication with others,” says Clayton Fisher, an audiologist and chief clinician at Robillard Hearing Centres.
Research has also found a link between hearing loss and depression in older adults. A recent review of 35 studies found hearing loss in older adults was associated with a 47 percent higher risk of depression, compared with the general population.
Left untreated, hearing loss may even affect how your brain works, and has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One theory: When your hearing starts to decline, your brain reorganizes itself in an effort to keep up with the conversation or not miss important sound cues, like a siren or a grandchild’s laughter.
Sounds like a nifty trick, but it actually takes a toll on some critical cognitive functions. As the hearing areas of the brain lose their steam and other parts—notably the ones responsible for higher-level thinking—rush in to help, the latter aren’t able to do their primary jobs as well.
“The combination of decreased social interaction, the increased cognitive load required to hear, and lack of auditory neural stimulation all contribute to the connection between hearing and cognition,” Fisher notes.
Myth #2: It’ll Be Obvious When You’re Losing Your Hearing
Oh, what we won’t do to avoid a trip to the doctor! Unfortunately, there is no test you can do at home to rule out hearing loss, Fisher says.
You can start with your primary care doctor, the NIH recommends. Or you can visit an otolaryngologist (a.k.a. an ear, nose, and throat specialist, or ENT) or an audiologist, who specializes in identifying and measuring the type and degree of hearing loss.
One common hearing test is an audiogram, which should take 20 to 30 minutes. In the test, a series of sounds are played through headphones, Dr. Velikova explains. You’ll be asked to press a button each time you hear a sound, no matter how faint.
The sounds played range from the lowest frequencies (bass) that the human ear is able to pick up to the highest (high-pitched tones).
However, while there is no guaranteed way to test your hearing at home, there are a couple of informal screening tests you can try. First, hold up a mechanical watch at arm’s length, gradually moving it closer to your ear.
“If you can only hear the ticking when the watch is right up to your ear, or if you can’t hear it at all, that would certainly be a further indication to go to a hearing clinic for a full assessment,” Fisher says.
You can also take this quiz from the NIH to help determine if you have a hearing problem. If you answer “yes” to three or more of these questions, make an appointment with your doctor.
Myth #3: Hearing Aids Are the Only Solution
If you’re willing to seek treatment to help you hear better, that’s a very good thing. “Research has shown that earlier intervention is associated with more successful outcomes when hearing instruments are used,” Fisher notes.
But how do you know if you’re ready to get this kind of tech boost? Simple: When you’ve tried other strategies to improve your hearing, like getting your ears cleaned, but your hearing loss has declined to the point where it’s getting in the way of your daily activities or interactions with others—it’s time.
“Hearing instruments will help to improve speech clarity by amplifying the soft sounds of speech back into your audible range,” Fisher says.
While you can’t reverse hearing loss, there are plenty of options that can improve how well you hear. Treatment will depend on the severity of your hearing loss, so some treatments will work better for you than others.
Here are a few of the common options.
Hearing aids: These are electronic instruments you wear in or behind your ear that make sounds louder. See an audiologist or hearing specialist for help finding the right hearing aids. Find more information from the NIH about hearing aids here.
Costs vary, but the average price per one hearing aid is about $2,300. Let your audiologist know your budget, and they’ll help you find a solution that fits your needs. (See below for more information on paying for tests and treatments.)
Cochlear implants: These are small electronic devices surgically implanted in the inner ear that help provide a sense of sound to people who are experiencing severe hearing loss. Find more information from the NIH about cochlear implants here.
Assistive listening devices: These tools include phone amplifying devices and apps for your smartphone or tablet—and they’re typically less expensive than hearing aids. You can also look into personal earbud amplifiers, such as Nueheara. Find more information from the NIH about assistive listening devices here.
Myth #4: You Always Have to Pay Full Cost for Hearing Treatments
True, Medicare doesn’t cover hearing exams, hearing aids, or assistive listening devices. It does, however, cover cochlear implants. Use this tool to see what Medicare covers.
But you may have other options—and with so much of your health and quality of life at stake, it’s worth your time to see what’s available to you.
Medicare Advantage: Some Medicare Advantage Plans may include hearing benefits, so it’s a good idea to visit your health plan website or call the customer service number to understand what’s covered.
Health savings account: If you aren’t enrolled in Medicare, are covered under a high deductible health plan, and have a health savings account, you’ll be glad to know hearing aids, batteries, and repairs count as qualified medical expenses.
Veterans Affairs: If you’re a veteran and enrolled in a VA Medical Center, the VA may help cover the cost of hearing aids, repairs, and future batteries. Contact your local VA Medical Center for details, or see more information from the VA here.
Special discounts: Don’t fall into any of the categories above? You may still be able to save money on hearing services and treatments. Look for hearing, vision, and dental discounts here.
Additional resources: Still no luck? Let your doctor know any concerns about cost, and ask about treatment options. You can also look for local programs that offer hearing resources.
Myth #5: Hearing Loss Is a Solo Journey
You’re not alone in this. Just the opposite—your loved ones are also feeling the strain of your hearing loss, as they have to make adjustments when they interact with you. (Remember your partner pleading with you to turn down the TV?)
Working together, you’ll be able to make living with hearing loss easier. Below are a few tips that the NIH recommends.
Don’t be shy about letting loved ones know you’re dealing with hearing loss. This will make it easier for them to help you.
Ask friends and family to talk to you face-to-face, or try video calls if you’re on the phone. Seeing their lips move and their facial expressions can help you understand them better.
Request that your friends and family members speak to you in a louder voice. Explain that this doesn’t mean they have to shout, nor do they have to speak more slowly—just more clearly.
Remind people around you to be mindful of ambient noise that can make it more difficult to hear people speak. Avoid playing the TV, radio, or music from speakers when not necessary.
Most of all, ask that your loved ones be patient with you—and be patient in dealing with them—as you all work together for easier communication.
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