How to cope with age-related hearing loss

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A significant part of the older population suffers hearing loss. One-third of people 61-70 and two-thirds of those over 70 have diminished hearing. Only about 15 percent of those needing treatment get hearing aids or cochlear implants to improve their hearing. Unfortunately, hearing screenings using even a basic tuning fork test or the Whispered Voice Test are typically not done by the primary care physician during the annual medical exam to determine if further diagnostic evaluation by an audiologist and/or ENT should be conducted.

Although there are many causes for hearing loss in older people, the term used for age-related hearing loss is presbycusis. Presbycusis occurs naturally as we age when the structures of the inner ear degrade. The individual with presbycusis is typically unaware of the loss of hearing that occurs gradually over a period of years. Those who live and work with him or her notice it, however. A person with presbycusis at first has trouble hearing and understanding words with the speech sounds /s/, /sh/, /th/, or /f/. They perceive everyone as mumbling, and understanding speech when there is background noise becomes difficult. Presbycusis occurs in both ears. Unfortunately, there is no medical solution for presbycusis, but with modern technology, age-related hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Age-related hearing loss is not something to be ignored just because it is a natural part of aging. The negative results are many. Straining to hear when it is difficult to hear causes fatigue, stress, tension and depression. Avoidance of social situations, some social rejection and loneliness are common. Alertness is reduced, and memory and learning ability are decreased.

The hypothesis that hearing impairment contributes to cognitive dysfunction in older adults was supported by research in a Journal of the American Medical Association article as early as 1989. Dr. Frank Lin, MD, otologist and epidemiologist from John Hopkins University School of Medicine, in his 2013 study “Hearing Loss Accelerates Brain Function Decline in Older Adults” reported, “Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning.” Several research articles in the last five years continue to support the association of hearing loss and dementia.

Of further concern is the relationship between hearing loss and falling. For people over 65, falls are the leading cause of death. Dr. Lin’s 2015 study “Hearing Loss and Falls Among Older Adults in the United States” assessed hearing loss and inner ear vestibular function (balance). Those with hearing loss have diminished awareness of their surroundings. Their spatial awareness is impaired. Further, they experience cognitive overload as they strain to hear using precious mental resources needed for balance. “Gait and balance … are actually very cognitively demanding,” noted Dr. Lin. Researchers have found that those using hearing aids during testing for balance did better than those who did not use their hearing aids.

Audiologists Monahan, Sieminski, and Motzko, suggested in the 2/17’s “Today’s Geriatric Medicine” that people over 60 have their hearing evaluated annually by a certified audiologist. Audiologists, certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, hold a Certificate of Clinical Competence identified by the letters CCC-A.

As part of Better Speech and Hearing Month, certified audiologist Chris Clukey, MA, CCC-A, of Dover Audiology, will speak about age-related hearing loss, its causes and treatments, as well as other kinds of hearing loss experienced by older adults, at the Abbott Memorial Library in Dexter on Thursday, May 11 at 1 p.m.

Clukey’ grew up on a farm in Dover-Foxcroft. He graduated with his professional degree from the University of Memphis, one of the top 10 schools for audiology education. Clukey worked in Fredericton, New Brunswick for five years before returning home to Maine 14 years ago to begin his own private practice and to help care for some of his aging family members. Besides working in his Dover-Foxcroft office, Chris provides audiological services to the hospital in Lincoln.

For more information about this very important presentation, please call the library in Dexter at 924-7292.

Ranagan is an ASHA Certified Speech-Language Pathologist with special interest in the prevention of cognitive-communication decline in older adults.

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