It’s a natural part of aging, yet confusion reigns. Here’s the advice you should stop listening to.
Do you get 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 half 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, the NIH reports, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Still, 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 hearing loss—and the facts that you need to protect your hearing for life.
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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 lead to withdrawal and social isolation due to the anxiety and embarrassment around communicating 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 older adults with hearing loss were 47 percent more likely to have depression, compared with the general population.
Left untreated, hearing loss may even affect how your brain works. It is also now considered a risk factor for 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—notably the ones responsible for higher-level thinking—and other parts rush in to help, the latter can’t 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. You’ll be asked to press a button each time you hear a sound, no matter how faint.
The sounds will 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, you should 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.
Some questions include: “Do you have difficulty hearing when someone speaks in a whisper?” and “Do you have trouble hearing the TV or radio at levels that are loud enough for others?”
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 that make sounds louder. There are three main styles— those that fit in the ear canal and those that you wear in or behind your ear.
Each style works a bit differently depending on whether or not they are analog or digital.
- Analog aids amplify sound by converting sound waves into electrical signals.
- Digital aids convert sound waves into numerical codes (similar to a computer) before amplifying them.
As of October 2022, over-the-counter hearing aids are available without a prescription for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. They may be a good choice if your only complaint is having trouble keeping up with conversation in a crowded restaurant, for example, or if you need to turn up the volume on the TV. OTC aids won’t help if you have severe hearing loss.
See an audiologist or hearing specialist for help finding the right hearing aids for you. Find more information from the NIH about hearing aids here.
Costs for a pair of prescription hearing aids vary—from $1,000 to $8,000—but the average bundled price is about $4,700, according to a report in PLoS One. 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 Nuheara. Find more information from the NIH about assistive listening devices here.
Myth #4: You Always Have to Pay Full Cost for Hearing Treatments
True, Original Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids or assistive listening devices. It does, however, cover diagnostic hearing exams and 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, such as hearing aids and fittings for the devices, 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.
See our sources:
Hearing loss stats and quiz: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Hearing loss and mental health: National Council on Aging
Hearing loss and dementia: Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics
Where to go for care: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
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