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Discovering Hearing Loss

Discovering hearing loss is very different from discovering vision loss. I remember becoming concerned about my vision when I found I could no longer make out the details of distant road signs and, similarly, when I couldn’t read the baseball box scores in the papers. These discoveries drove me to an ophthalmologist, who after a thorough examination prescribed glasses. Although it took me some time to adjust to them, my vision was fully restored.

The most likely way we find out about our hearing loss is from a spouse or, as in my case, from our children. I am an older dad, so my kids, being younger, were significantly less diplomatic. “Get a hearing test, dad” they said. At first I laughed, but as time passed, and the comments didn’t stop, I decided to get one, anxious to prove them wrong. Unfortunately, they turned out to be right.

But here is a conundrum: just because you have a diagnosis of hearing loss does not mean the doctor will tell you to get a hearing aid. An eye doctor is armed with a corrective lens section that can test your vision. Hearing is more complicated. Hearing aids cannot at present fully correct what has been lost. That does not mean you can’t be helped; on the contrary, there are many solutions. But unlike eyeglasses, which are designed to recreate normal vision, measurable hearing loss does not lead to a prescription that can fully correct and normalize your hearing. That is why doctors, when asked by a patient, “Do I need a hearing aid?” will generally respond with the following question: “Do you think you do?” It really is up to us to take the next step.

 Hearing loss happens quietly, pun fully intended. The process is not easily noticed by the person who is experiencing the loss; it happens over the course of a lifetime, and by the time we reach 70, almost half of us have significant hearing loss. In fact, although there are many different estimates on the numbers, experts believe that somewhere between 25 million and 40 million adults have this problem—and the problem is growing as more and more people live longer. So although you are not alone, hearing loss is a solitary experience.

 Why didn’t we know about this problem in the past? Because back then, we did not live that long. In fact, when Social Security was designed, in the 1930s, life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women—and that is fully 20 years less than what it is now (78 and 82, respectively). Therefore the kind of hearing loss we are experiencing today just did not affect as many people; at the beginning of the 20th century, people were lucky to live to 50! So the good news is that we are enjoying longer life spans; the bad news is that we often are not aware of our hearing loss.

How do you know if you have a hearing loss? Unless you visit an otolaryngologist... a what? Believe it or not, this is the oldest medical specialty in the United States. It is also known as ENT, for ear, nose, and throat. And, yes, if and when you decide to see one, you will find out exactly what is going on with your hearing.

Unfortunately, our tendency is to stay out of doctors’ offices unless there is something obviously wrong with us. Instead, we simply start raising the volume on the TV and ask people “what did you say?” or “Can you repeat that, please.” Those are the first indicators of hearing loss, but this process is slow, so we don’t notice it. But others do and mostly will say nothing. It is therefore imperative to listen to loved ones when they tell us, as my children did, to get a hearing test. Do it—the test will cost you nothing if you are a Boomer or older.

Answering “yes” to three or more of the questions below, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, suggests that it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you for a formal hearing test.

  • Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
  • Do you have trouble following the conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
  • Do people complain that you turn the volume of the radio or television up too high?
  • Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?
  • Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?
  • Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
  • Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
  • Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
  • Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?