Aging, Hearing, and Hearing Aid Blues
Most of us look forward to aging with dismay. We fear getting deadly diseases like cancer; we dread the aches and pains; we worry about losing our vision, our teeth, our looks, our smarts. With all those miserable things to obsess about, it's easy not to pay much attention to the fact that one of the first and most certain things to go probably will be hearing.
Fourteen percent of middle-aged adults between the ages of 45 and 64 already have significant hearing loss. 1 One third of those aged 65-74 have hearing loss, and by the time you reach age 75, it's a much surer bet, with two-thirds in the hard-of-hearing club. Why do some people lose their hearing and not others? Studies show that genetics as well as a lifetime of exposure to loud noise are the key factors. Also, smoking, medical conditions like diabetes and certain medications speed up auditory deterioration.
While males between the ages of 18-65 experience hearing loss at nearly twice the rate as women, the gap narrows to become slight in the elderly.2 There is a big gender difference, though, in how hearing loss progresses. Men usually lose hearing in the upper frequencies as they age, which has the effect of making it difficult for them to hear their wives.3 And with cosmic irony, women lose hearing in the lower frequencies, so they can't hear their husbands. Who says nature doesn't have a sense of humor?
Anyway, hearing loss happens so slowly that most people don't even notice they're losing auditory perception until they're really straining to hear. And it doesn't necessarily happen across the board. In other words, you might be able to understand everything that's said in a one-on-one conversation with your best friend in your kitchen, but when you're in a noisy room, you might not be able to discern what she's saying at all. Or, even if you can hear her, you can't make out half the words on your favorite television show. Once you do recognize that your hearing has declined, if you're like most people, you'll wait seven to 10 years before taking action.4
Taking action typically means getting a hearing aid, and unfortunately, that's not a magic bullet. Unlike the vision equivalent--you can get a pair of reading glasses for under $50 and read just fine--hearing aids are expensive, and besides that, many people find that they don't work. In fact, only 20 percent of the people who have significant hearing loss bother with hearing aids, and those who do typically wait until the loss becomes severe before caving in and making the purchase.
It doesn't help that lots of insurance plans exclude hearing aids from coverage. Medicare will not cover hearing aids nor the exam to have them fitted.5 The average hearing aid costs $2000 without the fitting, which certainly deters seniors on fixed incomes from going ahead with the purchase.6 Better quality devices with newer electronics cost $3000-$6000.
Question number one is why hearing aids aren't covered by insurance? It makes no sense given that the devices are hardly a vanity item. Research shows that an inability to hear can lead to social isolation and depression, and as we reported in a recent blog, there's a link between hearing impairment and dementia. In fact, hearing loss can double the risk of dementia.7 Plus, severe hearing loss exposes people to danger as they may not hear warning alarms and other noises they need to be aware of.
Then again, seniors complain about even the best devices, and many who have spent their thousands on hearing aids end up not using them at all, or they use them very little. As a publication from the National Institute of Health makes clear, "An ongoing clinical dilemma in the management of hearing loss is the level of dissatisfaction that many people with severe hearing loss have for even the most technically advanced hearing aids."
In the past, hearing aids amplified sound across the board, so that the wearer heard not just the person speaking, but also the wind, the rain, and the breathing of strangers across the room. Background noise was just as loud as the noise you wanted to hear. Now there are digital aids that supposedly screen out background noise while amplifying speech and other sounds you want to focus on. Today's models are also less conspicuous, for the most part. The newer innovations have led to increased consumer satisfaction with hearing aids. One survey of over 3000 people found a 74 percent satisfaction rate in 2008 compared to a 59.6 percent satisfaction rate in 1989.8 This same survey also found that 12.4 percent kept their hearing aids "in the drawer." In other words, they found the devices useless or so uncomfortable that they didn't use them at all.
Anecdotal studies seem to find higher levels of dissatisfaction than reported in that survey. Sit around the table with a group of seniors, and you're bound to hear complaints that the devices don't help that much, they're uncomfortable, and the batteries die. Nevertheless, they're better than nothing, and for right now, they're what's available.
There is hope that better solutions will be available in the future. We reported earlier this year on new research findings that a virus restored hearing to mice, and that scientists believe human treatments might be available by 2025. Until then, let's hope the insurance companies revise their policies so that we all can afford to hear when we're of age. Let's also hope that new breakthroughs will continue to make hearing aids better than they are now. In the meantime, you might want to consider the daily use of a good antioxidant formula. The connection to antioxidants is that when the hair cells in your inner ear are overstressed by loud noises, "free radicals" are produced. It is free radicals that damage the hair cells and nearby nerve cells--eventually killing them. In simple terms, then, reducing the number of free radicals slows down hearing loss. Note: make sure your antioxidant contains Ginkgo biloba since that also works as a vasodilator, and studies have shown that Ginkgo helps protect against hearing loss.9, 10
- 1. "Statistics and Facts about Hearing Loss." Center for Hearing and Communication. 18 September 2015. http://chchearing.org/facts-about-hearing-loss/
- 2. Holt, Judith; Hotto, Sue; and Cole, Kevin. "Demographic Aspects of Hearing Impairment, Questions and Answers: Third Edition." 1994. Gallaudet University. 19 September 2015.
- 3. "Hearing Loss: Does Gender Play a Role?" 1997. Medscape Multispeciality. 19 September 2015. University of Washington Medical Center, et al. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/719262_10
- 4. "Hearing Aids." NIH. 18 September 2015. http://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/viewfactsheet.aspx?csid=95
- 5. https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/hearing-and-balance-exam-and-hearing-aids.html
- 6. "Hearing aid buying guide." September 2015. Consumer Reports. 18 September 2015. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/hearing-aids/buying-guide.htm
- 7. "The Hidden Risks of Hearing Loss." Johns Hopkins Medicine. 20 September 2015. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-hidden-risks-of-hearing-loss
- 8. Kochkin, Sergei. "MarkeTrak VIII: Consumer satisfaction with hearing aids is slowly increasing." Better Hearing. 20 September 2015. http://www.betterhearing.org/sites/default/files/hearingpedia-resources/MarkeTrak%20VIII%20Customer%20satisfaction%20with%20hearing%20aids%20is%20slowly%20increasing.pdf
- 9. Alvarado JC, Fuentes-Santamaría V, et al. "Synergistic effects of free radical scavengers and cochlear vasodilators: a new otoprotective strategy for age-related hearing loss." Front Aging Neurosci. 2015 May 15;7:86. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4432684/
- 10. Wang C, Han Z. "Ginkgo Biloba Extract Enhances Differentiation and Performance of Neural Stem Cells in Mouse Cochlea." Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2015 Aug;35(6):861-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25822771