older adults

Staying Vital

By Lauren McGrath

My father is an avid concertgoer who turned 61 in February, and I’ve been trying for more than two years—since I joined the team at Hearing Health Foundation (HHF)—to convince him to get his hearing tested.

I do not know whether or not my father has an identifiable hearing loss, but I know that a person of his age should take extra precaution for his ears. The World Health Organization advises: “If you are beyond the age of 60, work in a noisy environment, or have frequent exposure to loud noises, an annual hearing check is recommended.”

Lauren and her father at a music festival in Athens, Georgia.

Lauren and her father at a music festival in Athens, Georgia.

As an adult, I have had my own hearing tested twice, first with an audiologist at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York City, and later over the phone using an automated system. Though I have never experienced difficulty in conversations or noisy spaces, I appreciated that these non-intrusive tests provided reassurance my hearing falls within the typical range. If a loss was identified, I would have been equipped to seek treatment immediately.

“Hearing tests are quick, easy, and painless, Dad,” I persist, but he’s still adamant about not getting one of his own, despite being generally proactive in other areas of his health. As we now know, ignoring a hearing loss can result in additional serious medical issues affecting the whole body, including cognitive decline and dementia, falls, social isolation, and depression.

With my ongoing support (read: badgering), I expect my father will take my advice in the near future. But most of the U.S. adult population does not have someone in their life checking up on their hearing health unless they are already treating a known hearing condition. 

Because the importance of healthcare is still severely underappreciated, I’m immensely grateful for the “Hear Well. Stay Vital.” campaign. This awareness initiative launched by the Hearing Industries Association (HIA) in early 2019 has as its objective to encourage more people—starting with baby boomers, like my dad—to check their hearing annually and take appropriate action with the results. 

hearwell-stayvital.jpg

“Hear Well. Stay Vital.” is centered on the preservation of our passions. The campaign website states: “We all have passions that inspire us, hobbies and interests that energize and make us feel like our true selves. Singing. Tennis. Dancing. Motorcycling, Yoga. Pottery. Hiking. Gardening. Traveling. Socializing. This concept is designed to capture those passions and help people understand that to stay vital and preserve their passion, they need to manage their hearing health. So, get a hearing wellness check annually and stay true to yourself.” 

HIA was largely inspired by a 2016 report by the The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine onHearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability.” One recommendation of this report, to which HHF Board of Directors member Judy Dubno, Ph.D., contributed, calls for improving publicly available information on hearing health. 

“Hearing health and routine hearing checks do not receive the attention directed to other health issues. Many people can cite statistics relative to their unique health, such as height, weight, heart rate, cholesterol, vision and more. But not hearing,” says Kate Carr, president of HIA. 

HHF is a partner in the campaign, along with the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, the American Academy of Audiology, the American Cochlear Implant Alliance, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the Hearing Loss Association of America, and the International Hearing Society.

HIA encouraged a major push during May’s Better Speech and Hearing Month to garner awareness. As of August, PSA videos were distributed to more than 3,000 network stations across the U.S. The PSA videos are in the top 10 percent of more than 1,000 videos tracked by Nielsen. 

“Anyone can join in this effort to improve hearing health,” Carr says. The campaign website hosts videos and a social media guide for free download and distribution. 

I’m hopeful that education will continue to increase and, one day, hearing tests will be perceived as important as dental cleaning and vision checks. 

Music is my dad’s passion. He sees an average of 40 concerts each year (with earplugs, of course), and his CD and record collection totals over 3,000. I want him, and individuals at risk of hearing loss, to preserve their ability to enjoy what they love to the fullest.

For more on the “Hear Well. Stay Vital.” awareness campaign and free shareable resources, see hearwellstayvital.org.

Print Friendly and PDF

The Miracle of the Cochlear Implant

By Barbara Sinclair

Barbara and her husband, Charles, who also has a hearing loss, in 2004.

Barbara and her husband, Charles, who also has a hearing loss, in 2004.

My mother didn’t realize I couldn’t hear until one afternoon when I was about 3 years old. I was happily playing on the floor with my younger brother. Suddenly I glanced up and saw Tex looking at Mother, who had clapped her hands. Not hearing any noise, I didn’t respond. Frantic with worry, Mother called Daddy telling him I couldn’t hear. She then took me to the doctor. No wonder I was slow in talking! Sound meant nothing to me. I didn’t know that I needed to talk to express feelings.

A teacher trained at St. Louis’s Central Institute for the Deaf taught me how to speak and read lips at home in Cleveland. I never heard a sound until I got my first hearing aid around age 9. The earliest audiometric evaluation I still have is from 1984, when I was 55, and it showed a profound hearing loss in my right ear. My left ear was even worse, termed “dead.” With training in speaking and lip-reading (speech-reading), I stayed in a mainstream school with the help of a hearing aid, although I really depended on lip-reading to get by. The hearing aid gave me a sense of being able to communicate, but it didn’t help much when it came to understanding speech.

I imagine anyone born with a hearing loss doesn’t always understand why they can’t hear. Many times I had wondered this myself. My doctors are also unaware of the cause. I speak a little differently, with a metallic sound and slight accent, sometimes accenting the wrong spots as I speak. However, this did not impede school or, later, work. After I graduated from Arizona State University, I held jobs in bookkeeping, the library, and human resources.

Sounds such as shouting, banging, ringing, and clanging all sound the same to me. What does a ticking clock sound like? Tap-tap, or click-click? Or running water? To me, these sound the same. I can’t hear the wind rattling the window. I feel it. I can’t hear the fury of a rainstorm. I feel it.

It’s hard for me to detect changes in speech tones or pitch, or to tell a low voice from a higher one. I read that a child’s laughter is like the delightful rippling of a water stream. I can’t identify that sound. But even though I can’t enjoy music or follow group conversations, there are some advantages to not hearing—I sleep without any interfering noises.

In 2001, our audiologist mentioned cochlear implants to my husband Charles, then age 72, who also has a hearing loss as well as being blind from retinitis pigmentosa. I researched cochlear implants and found this description from ABC News. It dates from 2001 but is still accurate today: “For those with normal hearing, sound enters the ear, triggering hair cells in the cochlea, a spiral tube filled with fluid. Those excited hair cells send information to the hearing nerve, which sends signals to the brain, allowing us to hear.

“But, if deaf people have damaged hair cells in their cochlea, an implant can also do the same work. With an implant, sound is picked up by a tiny microphone connected by a cord to a small box outside the ear. The box turns sound into a signal—transmitting it through the skin, straight into the skull. Electronics in the skull send the signals straight to the hearing nerve, bypassing the cochlear hair cells that don’t work.”

We went to see Wesley Krueger, M.D., an otolaryngologist in San Antonio. After a series of tests, Dr. Krueger told Charles that his hearing wasn’t actually severe enough to be a candidate for an implant. He was stunned for a minute, and then asked the doctor if there was a possibility for me to get an implant. Then it was my turn to be stunned.

Weeks later, following my own series of tests, Dr. Krueger came into the room, grinning, and announced, “You are a candidate for a cochlear implant!” I was speechless as he showed me the components of “the bionic ear”: the external hearing aid-like processor and transmitter; the receiver under the skin that connects to electrodes; the magnet that holds the implant in place on the skull.

barbara sinclair Copy of image1.jpeg

I had the surgery a month later, when I was 72 years old. A week after the bandage from my right ear was removed, I felt dizzy, but there was almost no pain at all. I then realized that the implant made me unable to hear with my hearing aid. Whatever hearing I had was gone.

For 30 days I agonized whether I’d be able to hear. The incision behind the ear must heal for that period before the bionic ear can be activated. Then, finally, activation day came—and was successful! There were beeps and squawks, but I could hear! Relief enveloped me as I progressed through the programming of the device. Sounds were distorted and muddled, but they were all new to me.

It has been 17 years since the implant. My device has been reprogrammed again and again until clarity reached its peak. I still don’t understand speech perfectly, but I do hear sounds I had not heard before: a ticking clock, running water, a humming car motor—and yes, the laughter of our four grandchildren.

Barbara Sinclar lives in Texas. She is a Faces of Hearing Loss participant

Print Friendly and PDF

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.

Teenagers Hearing.jpg

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.

 
 
Print Friendly and PDF

New Research Shows Hearing Aids Improve Brain Function and Memory in Older Adults

By University of Maryland Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences

One of the most prevalent health conditions among older adults, age-related hearing loss, can lead to cognitive decline, social isolation and depression. However, new research from the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) shows that the use of hearing aids not only restores the capacity to hear, but can improve brain function and working memory.

brain and memory.jpg

The UMD-led research team monitored a group of first-time hearing aid users with mild-to-moderate hearing loss over a period of six months. The researchers used a variety of behavioral and cognitive tests designed to assess participants’ hearing as well as their working memory, attention and processing speed. They also measured electrical activity produced in response to speech sounds in the auditory cortex and midbrain.

At the end of the six months, participants showed improved memory, improved neural speech processing, and greater ease of listening as a result of the hearing aid use. Findings from the study were published recently in Clinical Neurophysiology and Neuropsychologia.

“Our results suggest that the benefits of auditory rehabilitation through the use of hearing aids may extend beyond better hearing and could include improved working memory and auditory brain function,” says HESP Assistant Professor Samira Anderson, Ph.D., who led the research team. “In effect, hearing aids can actually help reverse several of the major problems with communication that are common as we get older.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 28.8 million Americans could benefit from wearing hearing aids, but less than a third of that population actually uses them. Several barriers prevent more widespread use of hearing aids—namely, their high cost and the fact that many people find it difficult to adjust to wearing them. A growing body of evidence has demonstrated a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. Aging and hearing loss can also lead to changes in the brain’s ability to efficiently process speech, leading to decreased ability to understand what others are saying, especially in noisy backgrounds.

The UMD researchers say the results of their study provide hope that hearing aid use can at least partially restore deficits in cognitive function and auditory brain function in older adults.

“We hope our findings underscore the need to not only make hearing aids more accessible and affordable for older adults, but also to improve fitting procedures to ensure that people continue to wear them and benefit from them,” Anderson says.

Mason new logo_2016.png

The research team is working on developing better procedures for fitting people with hearing aids for the first time. The study was funded by Hearing Health Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD R21DC015843).

This is republished with permission from the University of Maryland’s press office. Samira Anderson, Au.D., Ph.D., is a 2014 Emerging Research Grants (ERG) researcher generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International. We thank the Royal Arch Masons for their ongoing support of research in the area of central auditory processing disorder. These two new published papers and an earlier paper by Anderson all stemmed from Anderson’s ERG project.

Samira Anderson sm.png

Read more about Anderson in Meet the Researcher and “A Closer Look,” in the Winter 2014 issue of Hearing Health.

WE NEED YOUR HELP IN FUNDING THE EXCITING WORK OF HEARING AND BALANCE SCIENTISTS. DONATE TODAY TO HEARING HEALTH FOUNDATION AND SUPPORT GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH: HHF.ORG/DONATE.

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

 
 
Print Friendly and PDF