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  • Writer's pictureNick Oldham

Surprising Ways Hearing Affects Your Health

portrait of a mature man trying to hear something

Hearing loss is more than an auditory problem.

When Dianne Lange first stepped outdoors wearing a hearing aid, she was surprised by the high-pitched call of the chickadee birds — something she hadn’t heard in years. Lange’s age-related hearing loss, a condition known as presbycusis, had developed so gradually that she never noticed how sounds were simply fading away.

“I put off having my hearing checked until my mishearing what people said, and repeatedly asking people to repeat themselves, became just too embarrassing,” says Lange, 67, a Lake Tahoe, Nevada-based journalist and Everyday Health contributing writer. “It made me wonder what I’ve been missing in human conversations. But hearing people, I discovered, was only part of what I was missing. Now, when I go on a hike, my ears are as sensitive to the environment as my eyes.”

Lange is not alone. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one in four Americans between ages 65 and 74, and half of those 75 and older, have disabling hearing loss. It is the third most prevalent chronic condition affecting the elderly, after high blood pressure and arthritis.

Hearing loss is more than an auditory problem. Research has shown that it affects quality of life, emotional health, and even raises the risk for dementia.

Hearing and Brain Health One study, in which the cognitive function of 253 older men and women was tested over a period of 20 years, found a greater decline in memory and other mental abilities in those who had moderate-to-severe hearing impairment.

“We found a difference…equal to approximately a three-year increase in age,” says study co-author Jennifer A. Deal, PhD, director of graduate studies in the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

A separate study found that restoring hearing by use of a cochlear implant — a surgically implanted electronic device that does the work for damaged portions of the ear — improved cognitive function in elderly patients. Attentiveness, memory, and mental flexibility scores increased among seriously deaf seniors within a year of cochlear implantation.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Not all hearing loss is age-related. It can be caused by infections, head trauma, abnormal bone growths, tumors such as an acoustic neuroma, and certain medications. Loud noises, like an explosion or prolonged exposure to music at a high volume, can cause acoustic trauma — or damage to inner ear structures — leading to hearing loss.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 15 percent of American adults under age 70, and 16 percent of teenagers, have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to noise at work or through other activities.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that noise-induced hearing loss is a common occupational illness that is frequently ignored because it occurs gradually and usually without accompanying pain.

Through the “It’s a Noisy Planet” program, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides guidelines on how loud is too loud and tips to protect your hearing.

The NIH suggests that your hearing is at risk if you have to raise your voice to be understood by someone close by, if a noise hurts your ears, if you develop a buzzing or ringing in your ears, or if you don’t hear as well as you normally do even hours after the noise stops.

So How Is Your Hearing? The Hearing Health Foundation offers a self-assessment quiz to help you determine if you may have hearing loss. If you answer yes to three of the following 10 questions, you are advised to make an appointment for testing:

  1. Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?

  2. Do you have difficulty following a conversation when two or more people are speaking?

  3. Do people complain that you turn the TV volume up too high?

  4. Do you have to strain to understand conversation?

  5. Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?

  6. Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?

  7. Do many people you talk to seem to mumble?

  8. Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?

  9. Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?

  10. Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?

If you have any concerns about potential hearing loss, consult a hearing healthcare professional, such as an audiologist.

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