A Problem You Can Fix

You may have mild hearing loss, which is riskier than you might imagine.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

I have had hearing loss since birth and wear hearing aids. But even with my aids, it's hard to hear people talking behind a mask.

No, you can't blame them all for mumbling. People mumble. With good hearing, you can figure out what they're saying mostly without getting angry. Your anger and trouble hearing them is a sign you're working too hard to hear.

Millions of Americans have uncorrected hearing loss. Specifically, nearly 27 million Americans age 50 and older have hearing loss, but only 1 in 7 uses a hearing aid. On average, people with hearing aids waited a decade before getting help. 

During the years we go around without hearing aids, we can develop habits like interrupting people or talking too much (it's easier to talk than listen) or talking too loudly. This can contribute to loneliness. Conversations just don't go as well and people don't call. 

We also double our dementia risk and increase our risk of falls, according to research from Johns Hopkins University. Why falls? Our ears pick up subtle sounds and cues that help us balance. When you don't hear well, it takes more brainpower to balance — and also to follow a conversation or navigate a rocky trail. Being distracted is a bigger problem for you.

Even with my hearing aids, I was famous in one of my hiking groups for falling when I got tired at the end of a long hike. Usually, I was having an animated conversation at the same time. So I fell — twice. Once a big sharp rock nearly landed on my neck, and I saw my hiking-mates gazing down at me. Some may have thought I was about to die, eyes wide open with horror. They were more frightened than I had time to be! 

By the way, my hearing isn't that bad, probably not so different from yours if you're just now noticing you can't hear cashiers wearing masks.

The dementia issue is nearly impossible to face: Do any of us need to double our dementia risk?

The best argument against hearing aids is that they're ridiculously overpriced — you're spending thousands for less technology than you're carrying in an ordinary cell phone. 

My answer: You can go to Costco, get your hearing tested, and buy two hearing aids for $1,500 to $2,700 — plus your $60 membership. 

You can also get your hearing tested by an independent audiologist and pay for the visit. Your audiologist will urge you to buy your hearing aids at full price from her. If you are willing to put in the effort to make your hearing as good as possible, you'll be coming back for adjustments. That's what you're paying for.

However, it's possible to leave with the audiogram and buy hearing aids online for a fraction of the price. I've tried some of these. They're better than going with uncorrected hearing loss. Soon, you'll be seeing off-the-shelf standardized hearing devices in drugstores, something like the glasses you can buy there. 

The key with a real hearing aid — I can't speak to those devices, which I haven't tried — is that you'll need to put on the hearing aids when you wake up and wear them until you go to bed. Taking them off as soon as you get home, or only using them for parties and dinner in restaurants, means you'll never be really happy with them. I've done this, too.    

If you own hearing aids and stopped wearing them during the pandemic — after all, you're home all the time — have you noticed that the world is more disturbing when you're back out on the street with your hearing aids on? 

We need to keep our brains trained to process the full range of sounds. Hearing loss isn't just an issue with your ears. As Catherine Palmer, president of the American Academy of Audiology, puts it, "the ear is a doorway to the brain." When you have age-related mild hearing loss, you're typically missing sounds in higher registers. After a while, your brain isn't used to those sounds when they start showing up again courtesy of your hearing aids. They'll sound too loud, too sharp — unpleasant. You'll be unhappy and complain that your hearing aids "don't work."  

One reason people don't buy and wear aids is a private wish to not hear. A better approach would be to give yourself enough quiet time alone. Another reason is vanity. We don't like to acknowledge the ravages of time. But you will strike people as older when you don't respond properly. 

However, the simplest explanation of why people don't address hearing loss is that it sneaks up on us. Our hearing declines over time and we adjust — the same way we get used to weighing an extra 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 pounds. Every so often you look in the mirror and think, "That's me?" 

And once in a while, you notice you can't hear the cashier with the mask on and other people can. 

It's not too late. Hearing loss is the easiest age-related problem to fix and it feels good to fix it. I promise.