seniors

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.

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Study Suggests that Nursing Homes Ignore Residents’ Hearing Loss

By Robert Polner

Over the past decade, hearing loss has emerged as a key issue in aging and health.  The problem affects over 80% of people aged 80 and over. Hearing loss is associated with social isolation, depression, and cognitive impairment --- all problems that are common among nursing home residents.

Yet the problem of hearing loss has not received much attention in the nursing home world.

Photo Credit:    Senior Guidance

Photo Credit: Senior Guidance

“Hearing loss is often seen as an inevitable consequence of aging,” said Professor Jan Blustein, M.D., Ph.D., professor of health policy and management at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, the senior author of a study published today (Jan. 30) in The BMJ. “Many people just don’t appreciate how much hearing loss disrupts understanding and communication, and what a toll that takes in the lives of vulnerable older people.”

Prior studies in single nursing homes have shown that staff are often unaware that residents are having difficulty hearing.  But Blustein and her colleagues found that this appears to be a national trend.  Using data that all US nursing homes are required to report to the federal government known as the Minimum Data Set (MDS), the researchers found that in 2016, over two-thirds (68%) of long-stay nursing home residents over the age of 70 reportedly had adequate hearing, meaning that “they had no difficulty in normal conversation, social interaction, or listening to TV.”  The researchers compared this with previously reported data on elderly people outside of nursing homes, and argue that the reported rate in nursing homes is implausibly low.

“While prior small studies have shown that nursing home staff underestimate hearing problems, the data strongly point to a national problem,” said Blustein.

According to co-author and geriatrician Joshua Chodosh, M.D. of the NYU School of Medicine, recognition and treatment of hearing loss is “low hanging fruit for those who care for elderly people. Once you’re aware that hearing loss may be a problem, there are many ways to help,” said Chodosh. “Speaking clearly and facing the person when you talk is a good way to start.  But patients should be referred to an audiologist.  If buying hearing aids is within financial reach, that may be a good step. But there are other low-cost hearing assistance solutions such as pocket amplifiers that cost about $150 that can be very helpful in communicating with older people with hearing loss.”

As Blustein notes, “Hearing loss disrupts communication, leaving those affected especially vulnerable to social isolation and depression. Nursing homes could make a big difference in residents’ lives by attending to the issue.  This would not only be good clinical practice;  it would also be compliant with the law, since the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that homes offer ‘effective communication’ with residents.”

This press release was republished with permission from NYU. View the original article here.

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Idaho Seniors Receive Hearing Health Resources

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Idaho Senior News, the Gem State's oldest and largest publication for individuals 50+, printed hearing loss resources in its October 2017 edition. Authored by Hearing Health Foundation (HHF)'s Communications and Programs Manager Laura Friedman, the piece educates readers about hearing loss—the third most common health problem in the U.S.—noting that the condition is most common among older adults.

Left untreated in adults, hearing loss can "lead to considerable negative social, psychological, cognitive and health effects and can seriously impact professional and personal life, at times leading to isolation and depression," Laura writes. 

But there is good news. The most common form of hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss, is preventable. "If you are in an environment where you have to shout to be heard, it is probably too loud."

Laura's full article, "Hear, Hear: All About Hearing Loss," is available in this PDF on the Idaho Senior News website on page 19

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