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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