Myth #1 – Hearing Loss only affects older people.
Not true. Hearing loss strikes all ages. Babies are born with it and teenagers develop it. Hearing loss comes at ages 20, 30 and 40 years of age from environmental noise exposure and unknown reasons. It can slowly sneak up on a person for years or happen over night. Hearing loss doesn’t discriminate.
Teenagers are a surprising, new addition to hearing loss ranks thanks to MP3 players and earbuds. Some listen to their music so loud, others can hear it too. National Public Radio coined the phrase “ear spray” meaning: “overflow sounds from someone listening to their iPod too loud.” If this is the case, they are unknowingly damaging their inner ear.
Kids have no idea what their future will be like with hearing loss and they aren’t ones to heed warnings. To them, the louder the better. As early as 20 something years old, they will see the results of those years of loud music as they struggle to understand conversation in noisy environments and on the phone. Later, they will wish they protected their hearing. Hearing loss simulators on the internet show what hearing loss is like, maybe ‘hearing’ the difference will lead them to believing.
For adults as well as teenagers, going to concerts without earplugs also harm hearing. Anything over 90 decibels plays havoc with hearing and concerts are typically 115 decibels or louder. Hearing loss starts at this point slowly with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) after the concert. It may go away after a few hours or take a few days but each time this happens, it wrecks more hearing and it could become permanent. Difficulty understanding speech in loud situations is once again, the first sign of hearing loss.
Many musicians are now wearing specialized earplugs which filter sounds to protect their hearing. As lovers of music, we should follow their example and wear them ourselves. They cost around $20. As Helen Keller said, “Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people.” Ear plugs are worth the price if isolation is the eventual outcome.
Acoustic trauma is the number one disability among our veterans. Roadside bombs, suicide bombers, guns and heavy equipment affect the eardrum, the delicate bones inside the ear and the fine hairs in the cochlea. Many end up with tinnitus as well as hearing loss. The Department of Veteran Affairs figures about 78,000 of our military personnel coming home from recent wars will have some degree of hearing loss. Some will know it now and others in years to follow.
Veteran Affairs has programs in place to help those with hearing loss. They have various programs to help veterans adapt with hearing aids, assistive listening devices and counseling. (A link to the VA is below.)
Hearing loss can also be caused by medication, known as ototoxicity. Well meaning medications can wipe out hearing, a little at a time or all at once. Symptoms are hearing loss, tinnitus and/or vertigo. It can be temporary or it could turn into permanent damage. Good for what ails you now but poison for your ears. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects from drugs. Read the warnings on the label or find a list of ototoxic drugs online. (It’s important to talk to your doctor before stopping any current medications.)
Myth #2 – Being hard of hearing means it’s hard to hear everything equally.
This is only true part of the time. The most common type of hearing loss is sensorineural, typically a high frequency loss. This person has normal hearing in the low tones but a severe hearing loss in the higher frequencies creating a mixed bag of hearing. A person with this loss, can hear… and not hear at the same time. As an example, they may hear the garbage truck grind to a halt, the garbage can clatter as it’s being emptied and the thunk of it being set back down again. That same person won’t hear the birds sing, a cat meow or timers go off.
With a high frequency loss, a man’s voice is easier to hear than a woman’s. Children’s voices are the hardest ones to hear of all. They will hear the voice but not understand the words. Many consonants in the alphabet are in the high frequency range, like S, T and the H sound. The vowels in contrast, are in the lower tones so these people hear vowels more than anything. Filling in the missing consonants can be exhausting. When trying to follow a conversation, their mind races to fill in missing sounds to fit the context of the rest of what they heard. Every conversation turns into the Wheel of Fortune. Their brain works double time trying to piece together missing sounds.
Try turning the bass all the way up on a stereo and the treble all the way down. It sounds a little funky and now the beat overrides the lyrics. Go to the extreme, and take out treble all together and you have a profound sensorineural hearing loss. That’s what life is like with the most common type of hearing loss.
Myth #3 – Turning up the volume will help.
Wrong, volume distorts sound. Yelling, turning up the TV, radio or turning up their hearing aid might help a little but it might cause the person with sensorineural loss to miss more. There is no way to make certain sounds louder. The “th,” “sh,” or “f” sounds are tough to shout.
Take the word shout. A hard of hearing person will hear the ‘ou’ or OW sound so well, it overrides the SH and T. Their mind will come up with all the OW words trying to find the one to fit best. Doubt? Loud? Or was it something like proud? Not only that but yelling intensifies the situation, raising unwanted emotions such as confusion and defensiveness.
People often say, “if only he/she would only turn up his hearing aid, I wouldn’t have to repeat so much.” That’s not the case. Turning it up, turns everything up washing out much needed sounds. A delicate balance is needed. Some sounds come across uncomfortably loud causing headaches and/or fatigue along with increasing the frustration. If well intentioned people persistently nag the hard of hearing person to turn it up, the hearing aids may end up in a drawer.
The best solution is face to face conversation. Slow down a little and enunciate carefully. Sometimes the person will get stuck on a word, if it’s already been repeated twice and they still don’t understand, come up with a synonym or mime it. The hard of hearing torture themselves enough for not understanding their native tongue so patience is required on both parts. They are doing the best they can with what hearing they have.
Myth #4 – Hearing Aids Restore All Hearing
Flat out false. Hearing aids aren’t called hearing miracles for a reason. Slipping on a pair of glasses can fix vision but hearing aids do not work the same way. So far technology can’t reproduce true hearing so hearing aids are just that… aids. They improve the quality of life for the hearing impaired person but nothing replaces sounds once they are gone. Even with their hearing aids in, they are still hard of hearing.
In the old days, hearing aids turned everything up, even the sounds that were heard at a normal level, making some noises uncomfortable and confusing. The digital age has made great strides for hearing aids in flexibility making it possible for audiologists to dampen unwanted noises somewhat and raise the level of needed high frequencies. To get the most out of a hearing aid, the wearer should keep a list of sounds that are annoying and another list of sounds they want to hear more of. Hearing aids have a huge amount of programming ability and this helps the audiologist fine tune it for personal preference. It won’t ever be perfect hearing but it can enrich the hearing aid experience.
Mechanical hearing picks up other mechanical noises first. Background noise can render a hard of hearing person deaf in conversation. Washing machines, dishwasher, stereo/radios, refrigerators, fans and air conditioners come across loud and clear on hearing aids… better than conversation. Restaurant cacophony distracts from conversation to hearing aid user. Sit as far away from the kitchen as possible in noisy restaurants. The audiologist should be able to make a program for hearing aids to focus in one area instead of picking up surround sound. No matter what, restaurants are a challenge for the the hearing aid user.
Along with hearing aids, other coping strategies are needed. Always face the person with a hearing loss, unconsciously they may be reading lips and facial expressions for cues. Make sure the area is well lit. Turn off all possible background distractions to make it easier on both parties. The hard of hearing person should take responsibility for the conversation by letting others know they need a little extra help in getting by in conversation, telling people to slow down and asking for a repeat or rephrase as needed instead of bluffing their way through a conversation.
Think about a hearing loss support group. If you haven’t tried the SayWhatClub yet, give them a try. If you want to try something different, let me know.
Websites with Additional Information
Occupational Noise Exposure on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Hearing Loss Prevention
Hearing Loss Simulator
Department of Veteran Affairs