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Hearing Loss in Seniors – Ear Problem or Not?

March 19, 2015
Approximately one-third of folks in this country between the ages of 65 and 74 have some level of hearing loss. This loss is often associated with the reduction of adequate functioning within the ear itself – Presbycusis. This is the normal aging of the ear in older people which correlates into such difficulties as differentiating particular sounds/conversations in a group of people. There is also the loss of hearing due to Tinnitus – a ringing in the ear possibly caused by loud noises (too many rock concerts as kids), medicines, issues with the heart, etc. And there is loss of hearing due to blockages – Conductive Hearing Loss, often from build of up of ear wax or some form of fluid. Remember when you spent too much time swimming as a kid and couldn’t hear well for a little while? That was a form of conductive hearing loss.

Yet, not all hearing loss is directly associated with an ear problem. “What?” you ask. Well, it’s true. Some hearing loss, in seniors especially, may be a result of the brain aging and not part of an ear issue. As the brain ages normally, its’ ability to process various sounds, at the same time, becomes problematic. This is often called a “feedback” or “timing” problem. By this, it is meant that the brain does not, for example, separate the various sounds heard while you are standing in the middle of a crowded room with people all talking at the same time. The sounds tend to run over each other or blend together, making it very difficult to understand/hear what the person you are with is saying. Believe it or not, this entire breakdown process begins around age 50 and continues to degenerate from there, often preceding perceived hearing loss, which most people then claim to be a problem with their ears.

Although there is no cure for Presbycusis, being proactive can certainly make a difference in a hearing loss sufferer’s life. First, an early diagnosis, or at least acknowledgment of the issue, is important. 

For example, is the sufferer:

•  Having difficulty hearing because of extraneous noises?
•  Turning up the volume on the TV or radio?
•  Noticing higher voices, such as women or children, seem problematic?
•  Isolating herself from social situations or not blending into conversations as much as before?

When any or all of these symptoms are becoming noticeable, the first step is to the doctor for an evaluation. Next is to begin some clear and decisive action for all those who come in contact with the sufferer. For example:

•  Speak a bit more slowly.
•  Speak in your normal voice – do not necessarily raise your voice.
•  Speak as clearly as possible.
•  Always face the person to whom you are speaking.
•  Don’t be awkward about repeating what you said.
•  Use body expressions, i.e., hand gestures, smiling, or head nodding, etc
•  Be patient

Remember, the senior who is experiencing a hearing loss may also be embarrassed about that loss and may simply need to have someone understand what they are experiencing in order for her to get the assistance required to begin some form of correction. Also, understand that not all hearing losses are a result of a problem with the ear itself, but could be a result of an aging brain and a timing problem. The sooner you get this person to their doctor, the better.
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