“What did you say?” “Say again?” “Sorry?”
These are phrases we routinely use when we don’t understand something. For many, they are used only occasionally; but for others, they are part of every conversation. They cause embarrassment and annoyance to all. So what’s going on?
Statistics show that more than 50 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss and 25 million suffer from tinnitus (ringing in the ears). More veterans are returning home with hearing loss and/or tinnitus than any other disability. Hearing loss is often referred to as “the invisible handicap.” Without seeing a device, it is difficult to know that a person is having trouble. And besides, hearing loss affects mostly senior citizens — we all lose it as we age, right? Wrong! Two or three babies per thousand are born with hearing loss. Fourteen percent of those aged 20-69 report hearing loss. Sixty percent of those reporting losses are either in the workforce or school. In fact, the economy is impacted by as much as $123 billion per year due to hearing loss. It affects everyone.
There is a growing body of evidence confirming a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline and dementia. While it has not been proven that hearing loss causes dementia, there are significant studies that show that people with even a mild-moderate hearing loss are twice as likely to acquire dementia, and that dementia will begin several years earlier than those without hearing loss. Treating loss may reduce the strain on the auditory and cognitive processes and slow possible dementia.
Unfortunately, the obvious solution to hearing loss — hearing aids — has been confusing and expensive. Recently, there was legislation proposed to allow some devices to be sold over-the-counter to improve the accessibility and affordability of hearing aids. Audiologists are now offering lower cost options for devices, as well as unbundling options. But instruments are only one part of the process. Most important are the support and service received from your audiologist. A baseline diagnostic hearing test is the first step. Most insurances cover that cost. The test will tell you how much and what kind of hearing loss you might have. That information will allow you and your hearing professional to make intelligent decisions about managing your hearing loss — whether the solution for you is hearing aids, assistive devices, behavioral changes, or wait and see.
It is important that you talk to a specialist who will consider all your options and make recommendations based on your needs, not his or hers. Audiologists hold the Au.D. degree, which includes education in hearing, balance and neuroanatomy/physiology. Their experience can be used to help diagnose multiple sclerosis, Meniere’s Disease, acoustic nerve tumors and others. Hearing aid dispensers do not hold advanced degrees in audiology. They are trained and qualified to test hearing to determine if hearing aids are appropriate. Both professionals must be state licensed and are subject to state consumer laws.
Hearing loss can be frustrating, but managing it doesn’t have to be. Find a professional with whom you feel comfortable and communicate. It’s the name of the game.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — will offer about 80 courses this summer. Janyce Mose led a course on hearing loss this past spring, entitled “Huh? What Did You Say?” To receive a free catalog for the upcoming summer session, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Janyce Mose is a recently retired clinical audiologist.