Hearing loss not always a part of aging
I hadn’t really noticed that I had a hearing problem. I just thought most people had given up on speaking clearly.
~ Hal Linden (2005 interview)
I have terrible hearing trouble. I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf. ~ Pete Townshend of The Who (2006 interview)
It seems that we are never surprised when someone older has trouble hearing us, yet research shows that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of aging.
Hearing has been measured in older people who live in non-industrialized cultures, and found to be significantly more acute than it is in the United States.
The difference has been attributed to the lack of noise from motor vehicles, machinery, loud music, radios….. In fact, without industrialization the loudest sounds are birds, wind, rain, voices, and the occasional thunderstorm.
However, the lifestyle of people in non-industrialized parts of the world differs in at least two other important aspects: there is a complete lack of processed food, and physical activity is constant throughout the waking hours.
Interestingly, other researchers have gone back to the groups whose hearing was found to be surprising acute into very old age, and found heart disease to also be almost non-existent into very old age.
In our culture, age-related hearing loss coincides with several other ailments: heart disease, mild cognitive impairment, depression, and a shrinking social network.
It is not clear whether the poor blood flow associated with heart disease is responsible for the deterioration of the brain and auditory system. It is also not clear whether poor hearing is responsible for confusion, depression, and reduced social activity.
While these are important issues for clinical researchers to address, we do not need to know the causative chain in order to improve our health in our own lives.
We are constantly making decisions every day that impact the quality of life we will have in our older years: should I stop smoking, should I join a gym, should I increase the amount of vegetables in my diet, should I protect myself from harmful conditions such as loud noise, and so on.
As it stands now, however, the sad reality in America is that at least 40 percent of those 75 years or older do have some trouble hearing, and many of them do not realize it, or if they do, do not admit it even to themselves.
Therefore, it may take a special effort to communicate verbally with the older adults in our families and communities.
Facing the person you are talking to is not only polite, but will give that person a host of facial cues that can aid communication. If you choose to confront someone with the need for an audiological examination, do so in a positive way: “I want it to be easier for you to participate in our family events” is more likely to be received positively than “I’m tired of having to shout.”
As far as possible, hold conversations in quiet areas with little competing noise, and in rooms that have few hard surfaces which can cause echoes.
And if someone is having trouble understanding what is said, consider that the problem may not be senility but rather hearing loss.
Kathy Barsz, Ph.D., is a research associate within the University of Rochester School of Nursing. For nearly 25 years, Kathy has specialized in the understanding of hearing and hearing loss, and has authored and co-authored numerous publications and presentations on the topic. Kathy lives in Avon, and when she is not doing research she can be found riding her horse around the Genesee Valley.