Hearing is one of the senses that I believe many people take for granted. I think the general assumption most of us make is that we are hearing everything, or at least everything we think we need to hear, and that hearing loss is something that hasn’t happened to us.
I had a bit of a wakeup call regarding my hearing earlier this year. I first noticed it when I was struggling to hear our baby crying upstairs, and it scared me – was I losing my hearing? As it turned out my hearing ‘loss’ was due to a build-up of wax, a common problem that anyone can be affected by, but it did make me think, particularly about how older people who are living with age-related hearing loss might experience the world around them.
The problem with age-related hearing loss, and the reason so many people struggle to recognise hearing loss as they get older, is because for the vast majority of individuals affected it is such a slow deterioration that they just don’t realise they are starting to miss parts of sounds. As time goes on it becomes more widespread, but the person is so used to missing sounds they just don’t realise that the richness of the audible world around them is slowly diminishing.
This has been of particular interest to me lately, as my mum has recently been fitted with hearing aids. I accompanied mum to her first appointment, and the result of her hearing loss hit me hard when the audiologist was playing birdsong to my mum and she couldn’t hear it (without hearing aids), but I could hear it clearly. Imagine a world where you don’t hear the morning chorus?
So if my otherwise fit and healthy 70+ year-old mum can need hearing aids, how many other people are likely to? The answer is probably quite a few, and certainly more people than those who are currently fitted with hearing aids. Sadly, hearing loss remains stigmatised in a way that correcting your eyesight isn’t. Wearing glasses, or contact lenses, is a way of life for many people I know, but suggest wearing a hearing aid to a person who doesn’t believe that they have hearing loss and you may as well be suggesting they have giant comic ears mounted on the side of their head.
Many misconceptions contribute to the stigma associated with hearing loss, including:
- Feeling like a failure. It’s not a failure on the part of the individual that they aren’t hearing as well as they used to – for most people, age-related hearing loss is simply about the fine workings of the ear beginning to wear out, purely because they’ve been used so much. A sign of a life well-lived I’d say.
- Fear of being ‘tested’. Having a hearing test is no different to a sight test in terms of the fact that there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It’s a healthcare assessment that is designed to diagnose any problems you’re having.
- Audiologists want to sell you something you don’t need. A professional audiologist is there to help – if you don’t have hearing loss, or hearing aids won’t help you, then they should be honest about that and if they aren’t, seek a second opinion.
One of the biggest problems with gradual age-related hearing loss is that it’s often those around the person with hearing loss who become very frustrated with the person’s inability to hear things that others are hearing easily. Any child with a parent who has hearing loss will be tempted to resort to nagging them to go to an audiologist, I did, but educating yourself (something else I did) is much more helpful when creating a more constructive conversation.
The most extreme example of the consequences of age-related hearing loss that I’ve encountered concerned a person who went to see their doctor because their family believed that they were developing dementia. On putting the person through an audible memory test, the person scored so badly that the doctor also believed that they had dementia. It was only when the person’s hearing loss was discovered, corrected, and they were re-tested that it became clear that they hadn’t heard half of the memory test and therefore could never have answered correctly.
Hearing loss can be very isolating, particularly in social situations, sometimes making a person avoid going out if others are getting irritable with them. It can ruin the enjoyment of TV, the radio, going to the cinema and attending concerts: Imagine only hearing parts of your favourite piece of music. And as I’ve already mentioned those subtle sounds of everyday life, like birdsong, can be lost, leaving a person’s world far less rich than it might otherwise be.
There are also problems when sounds become distorted, or key sounds that a person needs to react to urgently are lost, like the sound of an upcoming car when you’re crossing the road. Untreated hearing loss is even being associated with an increased risk of dementia, with research presented in the USA earlier this year looking into the findings of physician Frank Lin.
Hearing loss, like other sensory losses, for a person who is already living with dementia can cause additional problems in providing that person with care and support. If an individual can’t hear what you’re saying, or enjoy things like music, then it’s likely to severely impact upon their life. Even if the person’s hearing loss has been diagnosed and treated (with hearing aids) years before they developed dementia, it’s a well-known problem that a person may refuse to wear hearing aids, alongside glasses and dentures, as their dementia advances. My dad, whilst he had perfect hearing, refused to wear his glasses and dentures for the majority of his years with dementia.
If things had worked out differently for my dad and he’d had hearing problems, I’d have probably been the first person trying to persuade him to have a hearing test. So if you know someone whose hearing isn’t quite what it was, or you are that person, have a test and find out. The miracle of hearing is too good to only hear half of life.
Until next time…