September is Healthy Aging® Month, an annual health observance designed to focus national attention on the positive aspects of growing older. Originally introduced when the oldest baby boomers were about to turn 50, there now are over 76 million baby boomers, and the first of the 82.1 million generation X-ers reached 50 in 2015.
Hearing loss is one of the common age-related health conditions that affects adults as we grow older. According to the National Institutes of Health, in the United States, an estimated one-third of people over age 65 have hearing loss, and half of those over 85, have some hearing loss.
What Causes Age-Related Hearing Loss?
The causes of age-related hearing loss are complex. This condition results from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Inherited variations in multiple genes likely influence whether age-related hearing loss occurs, the age at which it begins, and its severity. Environmental factors include long-term exposure to loud noise (particularly through earphones at high volume), smoking, and exposure to heavy metals such as mercury or lead. In addition, certain medications (such as some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs) can damage cells in the inner ear that are necessary for hearing.
When Does This Begin?
You may have just started noticing that you’re having problems hearing your grandchild or that you turn the TV volume up as high as it will go, but age-related hearing loss can begin as early as in your 30s or 40s, and worsens gradually over time.
At first, age-related hearing loss affects the ability to hear high-frequency sounds, such as speech. If you’re affected, you may find it increasingly difficult to understand what others are saying, particularly when there is background noise (such as at a party). However, because the hearing loss is gradual, you may not realize you cannot hear as well as you used to. Instead, family and friends may point out that your hearing isn’t what it used to be.
As your hearing loss worsens, it affects more frequencies, making it difficult to hear other sounds. Determining where a sound is coming from (localization) and identifying its source becomes more challenging. You also may experience a ringing sensation in the ears (tinnitus) or dizziness and problems with balance (vestibular disorders).
Age-related hearing loss often impacts quality of life, limiting your ability to communicate. It can also contribute to social isolation, depression, and loss of self-esteem. It may become a safety concern if you are unable to hear smoke alarms, car horns, and other sounds that could alert you to dangerous situations. New research also is connecting hearing loss to diabetes, dementia and other health conditions.
What Can I Do to Age Well?
If you’re already having problems hearing, do something now. Unfortunately, research shows the average person waits up to seven years before seeking help. Just think of all the conversations you could be missing in that time!
According to a highly respected survey from MarkeTrak1, hearing aids are associated with:
- Greater earning power
- Improved interpersonal relationships
- Reduction in difficulty associated with communication
- Reduction in incidence of depressional and depressive symptoms, as well as paranoid feelings, anxiety and social phobias
- Improved cognitive function and health status
Start this process with a comprehensive hearing evaluation performed by a doctoral-level audiologist in a professional practice. Most insurance plans help cover the cost of this evaluation, and it tells the audiologist which sounds you can and cannot hear. The audiologist then uses this information to recommend the best plan of action, including the right technology for your hearing loss, budget and lifestyle.
Will Hearing Aids Make Me Look Old?
Lots of people are concerned that wearing hearing aids will make them look old, but in reality, the opposite is true. You may seem old to others if you keep asking, “What?”, answer incorrectly, or constantly make excuses for the reason you missed key points in the conversation.
Instead, today’s hearing aid technology is tiny, comfortable and practically invisible. Many models blend in with your hair color, or may even fit inside the ear canal.
The latest hearing aids are “smarter” than ever, too. They can connect to your iPhone or Smartphone, using an app to help you select different listening environments, and even learn your selections, using them the next time you visit that location. Some models use rechargeable batteries. And, there are assistive listening devices that can help you enjoy watching TV and talking on the phone, two activities you may be struggling with.