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Hearing Loss

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A pleasant day in the country in Sudbury/Photo by Douglas Flynn

Hearing loss is a common health problem, especially among older adults. Hearing is a complex sense involving both the ear’s ability to detect sounds and the brain’s ability to interpret those sounds, and a number of different factors can cause issues in that process.

What caregivers should know about hearing loss

The aging process itself can contribute to hearing loss, which can also be caused by exposure to loud noise over time, ear wax buildup, viral or bacterial infections, heart conditions, strokes, head injuries, tumors, certain medicines and heredity.

The National Institutes of Health report that 17 percent of American adults suffer from some degree of hearing loss. That’s some 36 million people. But the numbers are even starker for older Americans, with nearly a third (30 percent) of adults age 65-74 and almost half (47 percent) of adults 75 and older suffering from hearing loss.

Hearing loss can have a major effect on a person’s life. Beyond the direct impact of struggling to understand speech or conduct daily activities, hearing loss can lead to other issues such as depression or isolation. The NIH notes that “older people who can’t hear well may become depressed or withdraw from others to avoid feeling frustrated or embarrassed about not understanding what is being said.” Those symptoms can also lead to a person suffering from hearing loss to be “mistakenly thought to be confused, unresponsive or uncooperative just because they don’t hear well.”

How should a caregiver communicate with someone with hearing loss?

Caring for someone suffering from hearing loss can be challenging because of the complications in communication that can arise. But here are some things to consider to help ease any frustration for both the caregiver and the care recipient:

  • Be sure to have the person’s attention when speaking to them
  • Face the person when talking, avoid speaking with your back turned or while you are out of the person’s line of sight
  • Try to speak in a quiet place, reduce background noise when possible
  • Speak slowly and clearly, and speak slightly louder than normal, but do not shout
  • Do not cover your mouth or speak while chewing or eating
  • Repeat yourself if necessary, using different words if possible
  • Use facial expressions or hand gestures to help convey the meaning of what you’re saying
  • Be patient and remain positive and relaxed
  • Keep a pen and pad of paper handy for writing messages if other methods fail

Types of hearing loss

There are many forms of hearing loss, which can vary in cause, severity and duration. Here are some of the most common types of hearing loss in older adults:

  • Presbycusis is one of the most common types of hearing loss affecting people over 50. It comes on gradually as a person ages, though heredity may also play a role as it appears to run in families. The degree of hearing loss can vary from person to person. The aging process and heredity aren’t the only causes of this form of hearing loss, which can also stem from loud noise, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs and high blood pressure.
  • Tinnitus is also common in older people. It is actually a symptom rather than a disease of its own, and can accompany any kind of hearing loss. Tinnitus is marked by a ringing, roaring or hissing noise in the eye that may come and go, disappear quickly or be permanent.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent.
  • Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound waves cannot reach the inner ear, usually because of earwax buildup, fluid or a punctured eardrum. Medical treatment or surgery can usually restore this type of hearing loss.

Help for living with hearing loss

While some forms of hearing loss are permanent, there are treatments and technology that can help many people and research is ongoing to expand those options. Among the options currently available are:

  • Hearing aids – A hearing air is a small electronic, battery-run device worn behind or in the ear that makes sounds louder to help people hear, communicate and participate more fully in daily activities. Despite those advantages, the National Institutes of Health report that only 1 out of 5 people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one. There are many different types of hearing aids and an audiologist or hearing aid specialist can assist in finding one that works best. Before buying a hearing aid, check to see if your health insurance will cover the cost.
  • Cochlear implants – For some people with severe hearing loss, a surgical procedure could be an option. In these cases, a small electronic device known as a cochlear implant is placed under the skin behind the ear. The device picks up sound and sends an electronic signal to the brain. This process does not restore or create normal hearing, but can help people become more aware of their surroundings or understand speech with time and training.
  • Assistive devices – There are many products that can help a person with hearing loss stay independent and enjoy everyday activities. These include telephone amplifying devices, TV and radio listening systems, alert systems that can signal doorbells, alarm clocks or smoke detectors  with visual cues or vibrations.

What MetroWest caregivers should know

There is help and support in the area. The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has its Central Massachusetts regional office in Worcester:

Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Central Massachusetts Regional Office

2 Foster Street, Second Floor
Worcester, MA 01608
413-788-6427 Voice/TTY
508-762-1124 Video Phone
508-860-4000 Fax - Send Fax with Cover Sheet - Attn: MCDHH

The Hearing Loss Association of America also has a local chapter in the area based in Northborough:

Hearing Loss Association of America
Central Massachusetts Chapter

Northborough Public Library
34 Main Street
Northborough, MA 01532-1942
Phone: 508-393-1435
Email: info@hearinglosscentralma.org

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