Alice Pomidor, MD, MPH, AGSF
Florida State University School of Medicine
Mary Palmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, AGSF
Helen W. and Thomas L. Umphlet Distinguished Professor in Aging
UNC School of Nursing
You may find yourself turning up the volume on your favorite TV shows. Conversations in restaurants or other public places may become harder to understand—and you may find yourself wondering when these places got so loud. During a chat, you may ask a friend to repeat herself because you couldn’t hear words, or you may even find yourself “cupping” your ear in order to hear her better. If you, or someone you care for, has these experiences, they can be signs of possible hearing loss.
Older adults can experience hearing loss that ranges in severity from minor to major. It is the third most common chronic health condition affecting older adults—about 1 in every 3 people aged 65 or older has some degree of hearing loss. By the age of 85, as many as 70 to 90% of people will have some hearing loss. The condition tends to be more common in men than in women.
Hearing loss can lead to symptoms of depression and lead to feelings of isolation.What’s more, research suggests that older adults with hearing loss can also have cognitive problems. In fact, in one study of people aged 70 to 79, hearing loss was linked to faster cognitive decline and impairment, whether or not they were having other symptoms.
Finally, in a recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers found that when older people with hearing loss wear hearing aids, their mood and social interactions improve, which might slow cognitive decline.
What causes hearing loss?
Most hearing loss in older adults is caused by age-related changes in the ear. However, infections, certain medicines, and exposure to very loud noises over a long period of time can also lead to hearing loss.
If you find that you or a person you care for has symptoms of hearing loss, see a healthcare provider for a hearing test. He or she may advise you to see a specialist in disorders that affect the ears, such as an otologist or otolaryngologist.
Handy Guide to Ear Specialists
Otolaryngologists are medical doctors who specialize in treating diseases of the ear, nose, larynx (voice box), head, and neck. They are often called ENTs – ear, nose, and throat doctors.
Otologists are otolaryngologists who have had additional specialized training in how to diagnose and treat diseases related to the ears.
Even when hearing loss is permanent, you can often make up for the loss. Certain techniques like lip reading, amplification devices for the telephone and radio, and hearing aids can lessen the effects of hearing loss. (The Hearing Loss Association of America has a helpful fact sheet on how to purchase a hearing aid.) It is important to let your doctor or other healthcare provider know about hearing problems so you or a person you care for can be helped.
Types of Hearing Loss
Conductive Hearing Loss: You have difficulty hearing because something interferes with sound waves entering your outer or middle ear. Simple problems your doctor can easily correct include a wax build-up in the outer ear or an ear infection.
Sensorineural hearing loss: Occurs when you have inner ear problems or problems with the way your hearing nerve works.
Mixed hearing loss: When both conductive and sensorineural problems affect your hearing.
Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder: Damage to the inner ear or the hearing nerve that can cause problems in the way your brain processes sound.
Drs. Pomidor and Palmer are the Chair and Vice Chair, respectively, of the American Geriatrics Society’s Public Education Committee.