Reflections on Hearing Loss
By Bob Mahon

First, let me share a bit about my hearing loss.

Back in 1956, my second-grade teacher complained to my parents: “He’s not paying attention. He’s just not listening.” So, my mother took me to the doctor. He used a tuning fork and asked if I heard the sound; I did. He said the words “ice cream” in my ear, which prompted my immediate smile. He concluded my hearing was just fine; my teacher remained unconvinced.

In 1970, I received a draft notice and reported for an Army physical, with its required hearing test. After two successive hearing tests that day I got the verdict: “Sir, we’re sorry to inform you that you are not eligible for military service.” Truth be told, I wasn’t disappointed.

In 2009, I was fitted for hearing aids, opening up a new world of improved hearing. Not perfect hearing, but improved.

In 2018, I purchased another pair of hearing aids, with advanced wireless capabilities. Again, not anything approaching normal hearing, but certainly far better than no aids at all.

Today, I rely on my hearing aids. At times I struggle with understanding conversation, but I wear my aids religiously from morning to night and hear quite a bit of what’s going on around me. When I play the piano, I hit the setting button on the aids for “music” and enjoy the natural sound of the keys.

That’s my short history of hearing loss and hearing aids. I know the years ahead may bring further diminished hearing, but I hope that audiological advances will help me continue to manage in the hearing world.

Aging and Hearing Loss

Let’s face it: hearing loss can be part of the aging process, and hearing loss complicates communication. Hearing loss affects more than 45 percent of seniors over age 65; more than 80 percent of those older than 85.

Hearing aids can boost your quality of life.

Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, is caused by the decreased amount of hair cells in the inner ear. This may be caused by extended periods of distressing noise that diminish the hair cells which, with increasing age, will not grow back.

Hearing-related problems promote social withdrawal, as we begin to lose touch with the world around them. For seniors, hearing loss lessens our ability to compensate for other age-related social or physical problems. This impairment can cause elders to lose touch because they often struggle to keep up with fast-paced speech or hear different pitched voices in conversation.

Although hearing loss has been associated with increased risk of dementia (see comments below), it’s not known whether it’s a cause of compromised mental functioning. A study published in 2013 found that individuals in their late 70s with hearing loss had a 30 to 40 percent accelerated rate of cognitive decline and a 24 percent increased risk for cognitive impairment during a six-year period compared with people of the same age with normal hearing.

But Andrew Weil, M.D. says there’s some promising news on this issue. He writes:

‘A study from the UK found that people who wear hearing aids for age-related hearing loss appear to maintain better brain function over time than those who don’t use such devices. This research was conducted by investigators at the University of Exeter and King’s College, London and involved 25,000 participants age 50 and older. Results showed that those who wore hearing aids maintained better cognitive function than those whose hearing was similar but weren’t using hearing aids. In fact, brain function of the hearing aid users was like that of people eight years younger.

Both groups took annual cognitive tests for two years. These showed that the individuals who wore hearing aids had better working memory, attention, and reaction times than those who did not. The findings were presented in July (2019) at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles. Study leader Anne Corbett Ph.D., of the University of Exeter, noted that previous research has shown that hearing loss is linked to a loss of brain function, memory and an increased risk of dementia. She added that a clinical trial is needed to confirm the finding that wearing a hearing aid really can help protect the brain.

One theory holds that to deal with hearing loss the brain may divert important resources from other areas in order to fully process and interpret auditory input. Another possibility is that hearing loss leads to social isolation, a known risk factor for dementia.’

So here’s my pitch: if you’re not hearing well, get your hearing evaluated. If the evaluation shows hearing loss, and your audiologist recommends hearing aids, get them, and wear them every day, all day.

Yes, presently hearing aids can be expensive. But they work. They improve hearing. They make it easier to engage in conversation, hear your radio or TV, enjoy music, or listen to an audio book.

And they may just give you a better shot at continued mental and physical health.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions?

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