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Diminished hearing affects many seniors

May 28, 2009|By MARIE GILBERT

Christine Claybill thought she lived in a world of mumblers.

Her children often had to repeat themselves. 

She dropped out of an exercise class because she couldn't understand the instructor.

And she scolded her younger co-workers for not speaking more distinctly.

But after a routine medical checkup, Claybill discovered the problem wasn't with friends and relatives.

"It was me," she said.

At the age of 60, Claybill was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss.

Tests performed by a local audiologist confirmed her doctor's evaluation. The decibel level at which she was comfortable hearing was almost twice that of a normal person.

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"I was shocked," the Hagerstown woman said. "I guess it should have been obvious. But, maybe I was in denial. I didn't want to admit I had a hearing impairment."

Claybill is among more than 25 million Americans who have some form of diminished hearing, including one in four people older than 65.

While there is no single cause of hearing loss, age is a factor in most cases, reports the National Institutes of Health. The hearing mechanisms are delicate and as time goes by, some of those parts just don't work as well as they once did. 

As a general rule, hearing loss occurs gradually, said Peg Eackles, MS, CCCA, with the Hearing Care Center at Robinwood Medical Center. There are other causes, including accidents, viral infections of the inner ear or prolonged exposure to noise. But hearing difficulties often are a part of the aging process.

Eackles said research shows a significant number of people older than 60 suffer some form of hearing loss.

That's in line with the age of patients she sees on a daily basis.

"While we have patients from all age groups -- children on up -- most of the people we see are older," she said.

What she tells them is it's never too early or too late to have their hearing checked.

"I've had patients in their 80s who are having trouble hearing and they tell me they've learned to live with it because it's just part of getting old," she said. "I tell them that doesn't have to be the norm. They can do something to correct it."

As an audiologist, Eackles said she knows from research that it can take a person up to seven years to act on their hearing difficulty -- all part of denial and acceptance.

"But the sooner someone deals with the difficulty, the easier it is to accept a new amplified sound," she said.

Eackles said each patient is unique. That's why a hearing evaluation is so critical to an improved listening experience.

According to the National Academy on an Aging Society, it's important for a hearing-care professional to identify the range and extent of hearing loss so the proper hearing aids can be fitted and the individual can again enjoy the world around them.

Eackles noted that people should have a baseline test between the ages of 50 and 55. If everything is normal, they might not have to be tested again until they are 60.

Often, with hearing loss, there is no pain, so people are often unaware there is a degenerative problem, Eackles said.

"Today, however, many physicians are detecting hearing impairments during annual physicals," she said. "I'm very happy that more and more doctors are now including hearing tests in their examinations."

Eackles said men are more likely to have hearing problems because they hold more noise-related jobs.

And there is a genetic factor. Eackles said researchers very recently identified a gene that shows a predisposition to hearing loss.

Certain diseases and medicines -- even the common aspirin -- also may damage hearing.

But one of the biggest causes of hearing loss is noise, even among people in their 20s and 30s.

"Whether working in a factory or enjoying a recreational activity, noise is all around us," Eackles said. 

That's why she encourages people to wear ear protection when using power tools and to be careful with iPods.

"Once your hearing is gone, it's gone," she said.

Eackles said there is no magic pill to cure loss of hearing, but there is the hearing aid, which has come a long way from the bulky models many older people remember.

"Today's hearing aids are so sleek looking, very high-tech looking," she said. "When people see how much they've changed, they're very happy. Everything is automatic ... no switches, no whistling sounds. And they come in fun colors. I have one older patient who has one in a leopard print. There are even models that talk to iPods and cell phones."

Eackles said that today, her fastest growing group of patients is the 50-60 age group, part of the baby boomer generation that enjoyed their music loud.

Now, they're suffering the consequences, she said.

"But they are also very informed, do their research and know where things stand. That's important, at any age, when it comes to medical issues," she said.

May is National Better Hearing Month and Eackles said it's the perfect time to consider having your hearing checked.

"The way we interact, communicate, everything we do is affected by our sense of hearing," she said. "Take that away and it reduces our well-being, our quality of living."

 

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