Hearing loss affects more people than you think

Despite remarkable changes in technology, only 20% of patients who could benefit from hearing aids actually wear them.  Reasons vary, but include a lack of awareness among patients and physicians, fear of stigmatization, and failure to recognize the immense value of hearing aids on social life and productivity.

Hearing loss affects 36 million Americans according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). One third of people over 65 have hearing loss, as do half of all people over 75. Surprisingly, 18% of Baby Boomers already experience hearing loss! In 2011, there were 75 million Baby Boomers in America. Ranging in age from 47 and 66, we are generally active, healthy adults experiencing unprecedented prosperity compared to prior generations. We are too busy to ignore our hearing health.

It is time to cast aside the fear of stigmatization with hearing instruments. Consumers have become so accustomed to wearing ear buds and Bluetooth devices that I often must ask patients to remove them before I can examine their ears! Compared to these new status symbols, hearing instruments can be even more discrete, more sophisticated or even colorful, depending on the desires of the user. With almost 20% of Boomers experiencing hearing loss, it should not be unusual to find someone wearing hearing aids – but they may be too small to see.

Consumers and physicians alike may underestimate the impact of untreated hearing loss on lifestyle and productivity. With losses typically beginning in the high frequencies, many patients believe they can “hear,” but have trouble understanding. High frequency consonants like “th” and “s” drop out, and words like “pea” and “tea” and “key” sound alike. Raising the voice just makes the base tones unpleasantly loud, causing the hearing impaired person to exclaim “I can hear you! You don’t have to shout!” Frustration can lead to poor work performance and social isolation – even to depression.

Despite the prevalence of hearing loss, many patients and physicians do not know how or where to go for help. Just yesterday, a  nurse practitioner acknowledged to me that in five years of family practice, she routinely screened for hearing loss, but never really knew what to do about it or who to refer the patient to. An otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) is a medical doctor trained to diagnose and treat all types of hearing loss – from ear wax to nerve damage. Otolaryngologists are also specialists in tinnitus (ringing) and dizziness. With more than 13 years of college and postgraduate education, the ENT physician is the best place to start for an evaluation of your hearing. To find a board-certified otolaryngologist in your town, visit the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Most otolaryngologists employ a certified clinical audiologist who is an expert in hearing tests and in the latest hearing technology. Many audiologists have completed doctoral degrees in their own field. With today’s technology, tiny hearing instruments can process sounds up to 32,000 times per second, amplifying the missing portion of speech sounds while suppressing common background noises. Trust your hearing to a physician.

Mike Armstrong is an otolaryngologist at Richmond Facial Plastics.

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  • Angelea Bruce

    As someone who has significant hearing loss, I can say that a major factor behind why people choose not to get hearing aids is cost.  A single mid-range hearing aid (1) costs between $1,000-$1,200.  The least expensive, and least effective, option I’ve found still costs nearly $600.  My grandmother also had significant hearing loss and went without hearing aids later in life because she could not afford new ones when the old ones were lost or broken.  No insurance policy I am aware of, including Medicare, covers any portion of the cost of hearing aids.  While the other reasons your article cites may contribute, I’d wager that cost is a significant reason why more people choose not to get hearing aids.

    • Lumi St. Claire

      As someone with a mild high frequency loss and a CAP (central auditory processing disorder), I benefit tremendously from discrimination filtering, which is available in today’s high-end hearing aids.  Unfortunately I am a walking poster child for Angelea’s comment above.  Finding an audiologist who understood CAP was hard enough, but my health insurance only covers about a fifth of what digital filtering hearing aids cost.  I simply don’t have an extra $5,000 lying around, and so I go without.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669880769 Carol Borgini-Connerty

    I wear hearing aids. I am really really tired of people saying ‘Oh but hearing aids are tiny! No, they are not tiny for all of us. In addition, my ear canal is too small for in the ear hearing aids. So stop setting up unrealistic expectations. Finally, I actually WANT people to realize that I am wearing aids. That way, when I ask the clerk to repeat themselves or don’t respond to a comment in a noisy environment, the person realizes WHY. i am not being rude, I didn’t hear them! 

  • Anonymous

    I’m one of the baby boomers whose hearing loss goes untreated. First, because the audiologist says I can hear fine, honest. Then, because it doesn’t make sense to spend a gazillion dollars out of pocket to have something custom made before I can testdrive it. Finally, because my limited exposure to gadgets that go in the ears (a few tries with earbuds for CD players, for example, which I hate) is that, after not too long, they give me a headache and seem to reduce my ability to hear in the hours that follow.

    I’ve been to the ENT doctor, I’ve been to the audiologist. It’s great that there’s nothing structurally or clinically wrong and I’m glad I respond fine to the pure tones in the silent booth. So why am I saying ‘what?’ all the time? Why is it that in any group I seem to be the only person cupping my ears to hear a little better?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=614010948 Earl Smith

    I hear this a lot from patients and families–it’s difficult to get formal testing, and then the devices are expensive. This is part of the reason I wrote this blog, and I am grateful to KevinMD for publishing us both on the same day. 

    http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2012/03/iphone-app-hard-hearing.html

    Most people (or their grandkids) have a smart phone, and this device works cheaply in a pinch.  It doesn’t seem to have problems with feedback, either. 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand why there is money for Viagra but not for hearing aids, glasses or contact lenses and dental care. We have the oddest ideas about healthcare. Some things are essential for daily life and health and some are not. These decisions must be made by those same idiots who don’t believe that contraception is essential for women’s health.