February 18, 2019
By Donna Eskwitt, Ph.D.
Hearing impairment can happen suddenly or it can progress gradually and subtly. Hearing loss can affect people of all ages. Gradual hearing loss is quite common for people beginning in their 60s. An estimated one-quarter of Americans between the ages of 65 and 75 and around three-quarters of those older than 75 have some degree of hearing loss.
Happily, there are exciting new advances in technologies that make hearing aids and assisted hearing devices better than ever before. Each new generation of technology offers a significant leap in capability and this, coupled with a rapid acceleration in the development of new devices and features, is good news for aging Baby Boomers.
We used to think of people who are “hard of hearing” (or hearing-impaired) to be seniors in their 70s or 80s, and generally men. Today, we are seeing hearing impairment in adults who are younger than ever before (some as early as age 40) and incidence is now equal among both men and women.
This can be attributed to a lifetime of continual noise exposure of modern life: from leaf blowers to traffic and airplane noise to can openers, vacuum cleaners and hair dryers. Over time, even limited daily exposure to some noise levels over 80 decibels can create long-term wear and tear that can be damaging to hearing because the tiny filaments of hair in the inner ear (called cilia) are worn down and never replaced.
This daily exposure is compounded by other new technologies of the 21st Century that impact hearing, such as headphones and Bluetooth devices that sit directly on or in the ear. And Baby Boomers, as no other generation before, have been widely exposed to loud amplified music from dance clubs and concerts.
Gradual hearing loss can be difficult to self-diagnose because you literally don’t know what you’re missing. It’s usually not until someone else remarks on a noise or sound, such as, say, a bird singing or the microwave beep, that you realize that your hearing has diminished. Initial warning signs of hearing loss are muffled speech or difficulty hearing in noisy situations such as at a party or group gathering.
Another warning sign is the need to turn the volume up on the TV so that it’s too loud for others. . Frequently people avoid difficult listening situations because they can’t understand, eventually they withdraw for common social situations such as going out to restaurants or group gatherings. Family members may notice that you are asking people to repeat things or asking them to speak more slowly or loudly.
Hearing assistance devices today are much improved from the old, bulky, over-the-ear hearing aids of the past. Digital processing has made possible the miniaturization of technology that results in much less obtrusive and in some cases, barely detectable devices. These can be either behind the ear or in the ear canal. Recent advances have allowed for open-ear behind the ear hearing aids, which sit behind the ear, and are connected to a thin tube that goes into the ear canal making the hearing aid barely visible.
The stigma of wearing a hearing aid is virtually nonexistent today, because of the development of Bluetooth technology and the frequent occurrence of people walking around with devices in their ears. Even hearing aid manufacturers have taken advantage of this trend and now offer devices in a multitude of shapes and fashion colors that can match hair color such as brown, black, or gray casings. Children sometimes prefer colors such as pink, purple, green or translucent.
Perhaps the most dramatic development is the introduction of sophisticated directional microphones that enhance the reduction of background noise. This allows the wearer to hear better in noisy situations and increase understanding in the presence of background noise as is often encountered at a restaurant, at a cocktail party or at a group gathering after church.
Another breakthrough in technology is the ability of the device to eliminate feedback, which sounds like a high-pitched whine or whistling. Many patients used to experience feedback in movie theatres or in church. Today, sophisticated hearing aids have the ability to cancel out feedback, and so this problem typical of hearing aids in the past has been virtually eliminated.
Hearing conservation is a critical component to hearing health care. Hearing loss can be prevented or delayed by avoiding exposure to loud noise for significant periods of time or by utilizing hearing protection to minimize that exposure. Today, it is not just workers in noisy occupations such as construction, firefighting or manufacturing who must be diligent about hearing protection, but everyone needs to understand the importance of hearing conservation and protection from turning down the radio in your car to noise reduction in your home.
Products are available to help you limit your exposure to noise. Non-custom earplugs are available for single or occasional use. Musicians or workers exposed to noise on a continual basis may want to consider custom-made noise plugs or musician’s earplugs. Musician’s plugs are available from a licensed hearing professional and will allow you to attenuate noise levels but still preserve sound quality that is clear and natural, not muffled. These allow you to carry on a conversation with others while reducing damaging noise levels.
If you or someone you know has noticed a decrease in hearing ability, please schedule a simple hearing assessment with an audiologist. You may not realize what you’ve been missing, and you don’t want to miss out on what everyone is talking about.
Donna Eskwitt, Ph.D., operates an audiology practice at Riverside Medical Clinic’s Moreno Valley location. She attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and earned her bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology from Ithaca College. She completed her master’s degree in audiology at University of Arizona and her doctorate in deafness rehabilitation from New York University. She has maintained a practice at RMC since 2004 and can be reached at (951) 697-5585.
Riverside Medical Clinic is the largest private provider of ambulatory care in the Inland Empire. If you’d like to find a general physician or a specialist, call the clinic’s physician referral line at (951) 683-637. For an online physician directory by location and specialty click here.