Time for Boomers to face hearing loss

Jul 7, 2014

Many of us have had a hearing impaired grandparent in our lives…or maybe it’s mom or dad who turns the television up full blast.  But now, baby boomers are facing hearing loss.

By age 65, one in three people will have what audiologists call a socially significant hearing loss. Much of it is age-related and experts say there’s nothing that can be done to prevent it.

But audiologists, like Dr. Cindy Whitehurst of the Mariemont Hearing Center think aging adults are seeking help more quickly than they did in the past.

“The baby boomers are a little bit more proactive with respect to their health care,” she says.  “So I think that they’re more willing to accept the loss and to do something about it.”  

Boomers are also much more comfortable with technology than previous generations.

Is noise part of the problem?

In an era of amplified music at clubs, sporting events, in our cars and restaurants where high noise level is part of the appeal, home entertainment rooms with “surround sound”, and roaring hand dryers and leaf blowers, are we destined to lose our hearing at an earlier age?

UC Audiologist John Greer Clark, says there’s no research proving that. But he believes there is some evidence that the noise levels we encounter are having an effect.

“If you’re in an environment, say a loud bar or a concert venue where to talk to somebody else you have to be shouting to them, you’re probably around enough noise to be damaging your hearing.  If you leave that environment and your ears feel different, they feel stuffy or there’s slight ringing, you have damaged your hearing to some extent,” Clark says.  

“It restores itself but not back to the full level that it was before that exposure. And over time it pushes that down further and adds on to what you might be getting with the aging.”

Dr. Peter Scheiflele is also a UC audiologist. Since government regulates noise in the workplace, he says, the problem now has shifted to social settings.

“I think people need to be more concerned about the amount of time that they spend exposed to noise that has to do with sports or social events that they are attending", Scheiflele says.

It takes three things, Scheiflele says for people to get a noise-related hearing loss:

* the intensity (loudness) of the sound

*how long you’re exposed to it,

*the frequency.  (Humans hear between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz.)  

He says occasional evenings at a loud restaurant aren’t going to wreck your hearing, but prolonged exposure to such noise might. 

Scheifele gives the example of an audiophile who listens to music intensely. He may turn up the volume to hear all of the mid-range sounds. If he takes a break and returns, he’ll need to turn the volume up even higher in order to hear the same sounds.

“So now you’ve dosed yourself two times and you’ve elevated the hearing threshold to hear the music in what you consider to be its entirety a second time. And every time you do that you’re elevating your hearing threshold … you’re actually causing yourself to have a hearing issue. You’re making yourself a little bit deafer every time you elevate that hearing threshold.”

Getting help for hearing loss

48-year-old Bobby Reno of Amberley Village realized he was having hearing issues four years ago. First, he was turning up the television volume. Then had trouble hearing coworkers.  He works in the financial services industry in a quiet environment of cubicles and computers.

He especially had difficulty hearing women, even when they were sitting face to face.

“I was practically having to read their lips. I could hear sound but it almost sounded like they were not enunciating,” Reno says.

So Reno recently went to the Mariemont Hearing Center for a test.   Dr. Whitehurst confirmed that he had high frequency hearing loss.

“As soon as she put a test set of hearing aids onto my ears and she started talking, I heard it immediately. Suddenly I was hearing S-s and TH-s and it sounded like she was enunciating really well. And just hearing my own voice while we were talking, I can even hear myself better.”

At age 67, I know I can’t hear like I used to.  I often miss my cell phone ringing if it’s in a distant room.  It’s hard to hear the beeper that tells me the load in my dryer is done.  So I also had a hearing screening.  Whitehurst gave me the results I expected.

She told me my hearing in low and mid pitches is good but it’s “starting to drop a little bit” in the higher frequencies.

“This configuration is very indicative of what we call presbycusis or the aging process.  It tends to hit our high frequencies before the low frequencies,” she explained.  It usually occurs in both ears equally. 

Whitehurst said it’s up to me to decide when I’m ready for hearing devices.  I’m thinking in three or four years… perhaps.

The important sounds many of us can’t hear so well any more are the “voiceless consonants”, even when spoken by people with low-pitched voices.  It can be hard to make sense of a conversation if you can’t hear these consonants. (An explanation of the differences among consonants is found on an English as Second Language web site

Hearing loss can mean isolation, frustration

UC’s Dr. Clark says untreated hearing loss can cause many problems.  He cites a large-scale study of adults with hearing loss and their family members by the National Council on the Aging. It found that untreated hearing loss increases levels of social isolation, depression, anxiety, anger, and frustration.

“These findings actually parallel earlier studies, which have shown a demonstrable increase in functional disability as hearing loss increases,” Clark says.

There is also evidence hearing loss may contribute to dementia or at least makes it seem worse.

High cost of hearing aids

But many people resist hearing aids because of their price. They can cost more than $6,000. Most insurance policies and Medicare don’t cover them. Clark says less expensive hearing aids don’t work well and often discourage people from getting devices that could be beneficial. 

Whitehurst says the decision to buy expensive hearing aids involves a choice for most people, perhaps between “taking a cruise and getting help with hearing”.

Bobby Reno is thankful he’s able to afford top-of-the-line hearing devices.

“I threw a cocktail party over the weekend on Saturday, had about 25-30 people over and it was so much easier having the conversations…I shouldn’t have waited,” he says. 

Audiologists say most people have trouble hearing for five to seven years before they seek help. Dr. Clark calls that an unfortunate waste of communications potential.

And…about those ear buds

If you’re wondering whether the ear buds your child wears to listen to music, for hours on end, could be causing future hearing problems, audiologists say “yes”.  You should tell them to rest their ears frequently and keep the volume down, to a level where it can’t be heard if you’re standing next to them.