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Becoming a Champion

By Rose DuMont

Leaving home for college with a severe to profound hearing loss was difficult. I graduated high school with high honors and had a lot of friends despite receiving only minimal support from my behind-the-ear hearing aids.

The inadequacy of my devices, which provided only a “soft” introduction to sound, soon caught up to me when I began my undergraduate studies. I struggled to hear my professors, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility I was required to take on. Among my many classmates in large lecture halls, I felt invisible and became lazy about attending classes. I was unable to fully participate in conversations with others.

In the first semester, I developed an ear infection that caused my right eardrum to burst. This immediately caused vertigo, which I wrote off as a one-time, horrible experience. I was in my dorm, where I remained on the floor for an hour until the world stopped spinning. It felt as if the floor had been ripped out from under me and nothing would be right ever again. I didn't throw up that first time, but I have thrown up nearly every time since.

Over the next two years, I experienced vertigo with increasing frequency. Eventually I was having attacks every few days. Every vertigo episode seemed never ending. Once the spinning stopped, there was no relief; just a feeling of impending doom. My tinnitus―which already affected me throughout my life―became more pronounced than ever before. The incessant white noise sometimes makes me feel like I am trapped in a huge indoor stadium with thousands of people talking at once.  I consulted an ENT at Mass Eye and Ear who administered three sets of vestibular tests, two MRIs, and multiple hearing tests over an 18-month period. Finally, at age 21, I received a Ménière's disease diagnosis and I searched and found a specialist at UMass Worcester for treatment.

Being given a definitive reason for my debilitating vertigo brought immense relief. At last, I could give a name to the source of my misery and take appropriate doctor-directed measures. I reduced my sodium intake, kept my weight in check, and tried my best to reduce stress.

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I was prescribed a low dose of Klonopin (taken daily) and Ativan (when I felt an attack coming on), which I took diligently for nearly 3 years before I decided I would rather not be reliant on drugs for the rest of my life. I voluntarily gave up driving for 2 years, not knowing when an episode would hit. Klonopin allowed me to lead a somewhat normal life and kept my vertigo at bay. Taking that daily, I was able to go to my college classes most of the time and began to drive a car again. Weaning myself off of Klonopin was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It took me 9 months, but my body was able to compensate for the change as I slowly took my reliance off the drug and onto my own vestibular system. I took up yoga, started running marathons, encouraged the positive relationships in my life to outweigh the negative ones, and have continued my low-sodium diet for over a decade. My life is infinitely better becoming consistent with these practices.

At 23, I received a cochlear implant in my left ear at the recommendation of my audiologist. The day after my surgery, I had vertigo for 18 hours straight. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced something like that since. And, after getting my implant programmed and hearing my audiologist ask, “Can you hear me?” I knew it was the right decision. Cochlear implantation has enabled me to become more independent and, therefore, happier. I’m still excited by the new sounds I discover each day.

I started running long distance when I was 29, and am hooked on how good running makes me feel. Since I’ve started, my vertigo happens far less than it ever did (only 3 or 4 times a year!), and I know I am the one in control, instead of feeling as if Ménière's disease controls me. I’ve run 5 half marathons and 6 marathons, with my 7th in March in Washington, D.C. and 8th in June in Portland, OR.

At this point I can say Ménière's disease and my initial negative experiences in undergraduate school have impacted my life for the better. Ménière's is a lonely condition but it’s forced me to become much more self-reliant―an important trait to finding both work and friends wherever I go, as I’ve moved around the country. Before I could depend on myself, I’d look to everyone else to try to do things just like them. In college, for example, I tried to listen and take notes at the same time during classes before realizing, at age 30, that I’m not able to learn the same way as someone with typical hearing. Once I realized that, my Masters degree was a breeze, and I was able to easily earn my 3.9 GPA.

Ménière's disease does not affect all people the same way.  Not everyone has the same symptoms so it can be difficult to diagnose. Also, there isn’t one specific treatment. If one method doesn’t help, then you need to try another. Be patient and realize you are stronger than you think.

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If I could, I’d tell my younger self―just after my Ménière's diagnosis―this: “You are stronger than you think you are.” The same goes for anyone becoming acquainted with the condition. I’d tell them, “You’re a champion.” I’m not yet a running champion; I have never placed in a race. Though I can run a marathon in under 4 hours, my dream is to reduce my time by 20 minutes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. There I can compete alongside some of the best runners in the world, doing what keeps me balanced, relying only on myself.

Rose DuMont lives in Arizona where she works as a teacher of the deaf. She was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 5 and is a participant in HHF’s “Faces of Hearing Loss” project.

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Hearing Better Through the Ages

By Rebecca Huzzy, Au.D.

Chances are, you visit your doctor for an annual physical, wear a seatbelt, and use sunscreen. These are just a few small efforts we regularly make to stay healthy and injury-free.

Tending to the health of our hearing is another important, simple way we can maintain our overall physical and emotional well-being. Supporting hearing health begins at birth, when we test newborns for hearing loss, and continues into our elder years, when assistive technology can vastly improve overall health and quality of life.

Diagnosing Newborns & Infants

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hearing loss is one of the most common congenital conditions, impacting approximately 12,000 infants per year. About half of these cases are linked to certain genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome, Treacher Collins, and Usher syndrome.

But with the advent of universal newborn hearing screening programs in the early 1990s, hearing loss can now be identified and treated very early. According to what we call the “1-3-6” EHDI (Early Hearing Detection and Intervention) national goals, infants should be screened by age 1 month; diagnosed by age 3 months; and in an early intervention program by age 6 months.

“The effects of providing acoustic stimulation to the immature neurological system, including the brain, and combining the input with a rich and meaningful environmental experience, allows children to develop sufficient auditory skills to learn spoken language at a very young age,” says Janice C. Gatty, Ed.D., the director of Child & Family Services at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

This means families should expose their infants to sound frequently and consistently—talking to them, naming objects, narrating actions, singing, and reading books. With access to sound and an early intervention program at this young age, a child with hearing loss can begin learning to listen, babble, and eventually talk.

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Common Risks for Adolescents & Teens

Since the prevailing cause of hearing loss in young people with typical hearing is noise exposure, we need to educate kids early, as many begin listening to music on personal devices, playing in bands, and attending concerts at a young age.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, exposure to sound that is higher than 85 decibels (the volume of a blender, hair dryer, or siren) for an extended period of time can cause permanent hearing damage. And the maximum output of most MP3 players is a powerful 110 decibels!

Fortunately, there are options for volume-limiting software that can mitigate unhealthy sound levels. Many devices offer parental controls and volume-controlling apps that limit noise levels, and there are various kid-friendly, hearing-healthy headphones available.

Follow the 80/90 rule: Set the maximum headphone volume to be 80 percent (not 100 percent), and listen for up to 90 minutes daily. If you listen for longer, lower the volume even more.

How Sound Exposure Catches Up With Us in Middle Age

“Adult onset hearing loss typically progresses slowly over the course of a number of years,” says audiologist John Mazzeo, Au.D., the audiology supervisor at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can have a sneaky, cumulative effect, similar to the impact of years of exposure to the sun. The people at the highest risk for NIHL work in noisy professions and include musicians, farmers, dentists, airport workers, and military service members. For those who spend time in loud environments, wearing hearing protection is the best way to guard against NIHL.

Ototoxic drugs (drugs harmful to hearing) and certain conditions, such as Ménière’s disease, can also contribute to progressive hearing loss over time. Regular screenings, prior to the recommended age of 50, are especially important if hearing loss runs in the family, or if you have symptoms associated with hearing loss, such as tinnitus, dizziness, or a perceived decrease in hearing.

Caring for Seniors as Hearing Abilities Change

Hearing loss becomes much more prevalent with age, affecting more than 30 percent of people over age 65, and 80 percent of adults over 80.

Hearing loss in seniors is linked to serious health conditions, including dementia. When communication is difficult, many people will avoid social situations, and research shows that social isolation is linked to cognitive decline, a key symptom of dementia. Additionally, difficulty hearing can impact the effectiveness of our other neural processes.

The risk of falls also becomes more likely with age, due to both decreased spatial awareness and increased cognitive load. A 2012 Johns Hopkins study found that older adults with mild hearing loss were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling.

Staying Fit

If you’re diagnosed with a hearing loss, remember: Hearing loss is not only very common, it’s also very treatable! A licensed audiologist or hearing healthcare professional can discuss options with you, including hearing aids and assistive listening devices.

When it’s a loved one struggling to hear, or being stubborn about getting help, be patient. Gain their attention before talking, rephrase sentences instead of repeating them, and encourage trying out some kind of amplification.

Think of your hearing health as essential to your body’s complete performance. Our bodily systems are all interconnected; neglecting to protect our ears or refusing helpful interventions can have cascading health effects. When you take even small steps to protect your hearing health and that of loved ones, such as through regular hearing screenings and using earplugs in noisy environments, take heart in knowing you have bolstered your overall well-being.

Rebecca Huzzy, Au.D., CCC-A, is an educational audiologist at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech at its Philadelphia location and a clinical audiologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. For more, see clarkeschools.org. This article also appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Hearing Health magazine. For references, see hhf.org/spring2018-references.

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
 
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Get Moving to Preserve Your Hearing

By Yvonnie Phan

As 2018 begins, many Americans, motivated to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, have already made the popular New Year’s Resolution to exercise more frequently. This commitment has an additional, lesser-known benefit; exercise is proven to preserve hearing health. Engaging in physical activity with proper safety precautions can delay or prevent age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, which affects a quarter of adults 65-74 and half of those older than 75.  

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Cardiovascular exercise is vital to hearing health as one ages. A person over 50 years old without a genetic predisposition to hearing loss and who engages in cardio for 20-30 minutes five times weekly is more likely to maintain a healthy auditory system than someone with low cardiovascular activity. In a decade-long Miami University study of 1000 subjects of all ages, those over 50 with moderate-to-high cardiovascular fitness levels maintained hearing sensitivity comparable to people in their 30s, effectively delaying presbycusis.

An additional investigation from the University of Florida affirms that routine cardio provides the necessary blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients to maintain the health of important auditory systems within the cochlea. Lead author Shinichi Someya, Ph.D. explains that  “the cochlea, or inner ear, is a high-energy demanding organ.”

Stretching and yoga are healthy alternatives to cardiovascular exercise. These activities facilitate proper blood flow throughout the body and activate the muscles. While stretching or performing yoga poses, it’s important to focus on breathing to increase oxygen and blood flow. There are even yoga poses designed specifically for those with tinnitus.

The hearing health benefits of exercise can be negated by noise exposure or improper ear care, however.

Listening to audio through headphones at a loud volume can increase one’s chances of Music-Induced Hearing Loss (MIHL), as can the music played during exercise classes. Turning down the volume on your device, wearing earplugs, and giving ears time to recover from loud noises can help prevent damage to the auditory system.

Those who swim are encouraged to keep their ears dry. Moisture in the ear allows for bacteria, or even fungi and viruses, to attack the ear canal, which can lead to Swimmer’s Ear and cause temporary hearing loss. Dry ears immediately and do not insert anything, such as cotton swabs, into them.

Health professionals strongly recommend everyone incorporate exercise into their daily routine. There are many benefits in maintaining a consistent exercise regimen and we can now add hearing loss prevention to the list. Before starting a new fitness routine, consult your physician to assure the routine is safe and suitable for your health.

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