May 2014

Health & Wellness: Can You Hear Me?

Author: Randy Staton

Our hearing is integral to keeping us connected with the world around us, and to those we love. Yet more than 60 percent of older adults have hearing loss. Unfortunately, only one in five of adults who need a hearing aid actually wear one and wait an average of 5-7 years before seeing a specialist for help. Untreated hearing loss can affect your ability to understand speech and can negatively impact your social, emotional and physical well-being. Recent studies have strongly linked it to other health problems, such as cognitive decline, increased risk of dementia, and poorer physical function.

Common causes of hearing loss include exposure to excessive loud noise over a period of time; ear infections, trauma, or ear disease; harm of the inner ear and ear drum from contact with a foreign object (such as cotton swabs); illness or certain medications that may be ototoxic; or deteriorating hearing due to the normal aging process.

Signs that you are may have hearing loss include:

Social
-You have difficulty hearing people talk in noisy environments such as a restaurant, shopping mall, in a car, or at the movie theater.
-People seem to “mumble” all the time.
-Family, friends, or colleagues often have to repeat themselves.
-You have trouble hearing people when they are not facing you or are in another room.
-You have trouble following conversations.

Emotional
-You feel annoyed when people are hard to understand.
-You feel overwhelmed by large, noisy gatherings of family or friends.
-You would rather stay home alone than be with others in a noisy setting.
-You have trouble connecting with family members, especially children, because you cannot understand them.
-You are fearful of new social situations.

Medical
-You hear ringing, buzzing, or hissing sounds in my ears.
-You have difficulty hearing certain sounds.
-You take, or have taken, medication that can damage hearing (ototoxic drugs).
-You have a family history of hearing loss.

Types of hearing loss
Hearing loss is classified as sensorineural, conductive or a combination of both. The sensorineural type of hearing loss is the most common. It is associated with abnormalities to the cochlea or its nerve. People with this type of hearing loss often have their televisions too loud or frequently ask others to repeat themselves. This type of hearing loss may also affect the ability to understand speech, especially within noisy environments. The higher frequency ranges of one’s speech are the sounds made by the letters “s”, “ch” and “t” and are often affected by sensorineural hearing loss. This type of loss can usually be helped with hearing aids.

The conductive type of hearing loss occurs when sounds are not transmitted or “conducted” properly through the ear canal, eardrum and/or the middle ear. Causes of conductive hearing loss may include a buildup of earwax (cerumen) blocking the ear canal, other obstructions in the ear canal, fluid in the middle ear, infections (external otitis or otitis media), perforations (holes) in the eardrum and tumors or other diseases in the middle ear. Additionally, abnormalities in the ossicular chain (hammer, anvil, and stirrup) can also cause conductive hearing loss. Most losses of this sort are medical issues that cannot be addressed with hearing aids.

Effects of hearing loss
The effects of untreated hearing loss are serious. Untreated hearing loss is dangerous and can lead to a variety of health issues. Incidents of serious depression are higher in those with untreated hearing loss. As it becomes more and more difficult to hear, the individual begins self-isolating, withdrawing from family and friends as his or her frustration grows. Additionally, a recent study by Johns Hopkins and National Institute on Aging found a correlation between untreated hearing loss and a loss of cognitive function, noting a higher risk of developing forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.

Auditory deprivation, which is what happens when the brain no longer receives appropriate auditory stimulation, leads to diminished cognitive function. Auditory stimulation is critical in maintaining healthy brain function. The good news is that many of the issues experienced due to untreated hearing loss can be halte -d and, in some cases, reversed when the individual is fitted with bilateral hearing aids.

Ways to prevent hearing loss
-Be aware of potentially noisy environments. Consider avoiding these situations outright or at least taking the right precautions. Always be prepared to use some form of protection such as earplugs or earmuffs.
-Never under any circumstances should you stick a foreign object into your ear.
-If you have been prescribed a new medicine by your doctor, ask your doctor and/or pharmacist if the new medicine has any known adverse effects to hearing.
-When traveling by air, you should yawn and swallow as the plane is descending.
-When blowing your nose, do it gently. Too much force may cause damage. 

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