Aging Fearlessly: Time To Talk About Hearing Loss

Posted on 12/06/21

When my husband, Don, was in his 70s, I suggested that he get his hearing checked. “Absolutely not,” he replied firmly, “wearing a hearing aid is the one thing that will make me feel old.” A few months later he mentioned that a friend he spoke with on the phone was “mumbling so much I could barely understand him.” I suggested we should make sure it was his friend mumbling and not Don’s hearing that was the issue. I pointed out that as a jazz musician for over 60 years, he had often been surrounded by loud music at gigs and, as a woodworker for decades, he used lots of very noisy electric tools. It was possible that these hobbies had damaged his hearing. He reluctantly agreed to see an audiologist.  

Until I researched hearing loss for this blog post, the only thing I knew about ears was that they have tiny bones with funny names (hammer, anvil, and stirrup), and that some folks have hair in their ears. (Don had to clip his from time to time although I suggested braiding it might be more fun.). Now I know that we all have thousands of tiny hair cells in our inner ears that convert sound waves into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. Various things can kill these hair cells including loud sounds and even chemicals in cigarette smoke. Another culprit is long exposure to low-level noise, such as crowded restaurants or busy work environments.   

Dr. Sujana Chandrasekar, a hearing specialist in New York and New Jersey, says that “for men, hearing loss often starts in the mid-50s. Women, whose hearing may get some protection from female hormones, are usually affected by their early to mid-60s.” About half of people 75 and older need hearing aids. But how do you know if it’s time to get tested? 

An AARP website lists “10 Sings of Hearing Loss You Shouldn’t Ignore.” Some of these include: getting irritated with others for mumbling; difficulty following conversations in person, on the phone, or on television; not remembering things people tell you (because if you don’t hear them clearly, you have trouble remembering it); and getting distracted easily (it takes more energy to make sense of conversations if you’re only hearing snippets).  

Hearing difficulties can also trigger health issues such as balance problems. Dr. Chandrasekhar explains that your hearing mechanism is connected by a fluid-filled space to your balance mechanism, so one affects the other. “When you put hearing aids on people with hearing loss, their sense of balance and ability to sense where they are in space improves immensely.”  

When should you see an audiologist? An AARP article lists “9 Reasons to Act Now.” The one that got my attention was that even mild hearing loss changes your brain. Anu Shama, a professor at the University of Colorado, explains that “as hearing wanes, the visual and sensory processing parts of the brain start using parts of the auditory cortex to understand sounds, a shift that results in … deterioration of the auditory cortex overtime.” Uncorrected hearing takes a toll on memory and other cognitive abilities and has been linked to dementia.  

When Don finally got his hearing evaluated, we learned that he had significant loss in both ears. Hie agreed he needed hearing aids. They made an enormous difference to both of us. But what about my hearing? Although convinced it was “perfect,” last week I took the baseline telephone hearing test offered by AARP that is free for members. I was surprised to learn that I have “slight” hearing loss in both ears. I’m going to ask my primary care physician for an audiology referral. My brain is my favorite organ, and I don’t want any of it impaired by hearing issues.  

Now it’s your turn. Consider your potential for hearing loss and start a conversation with family and friends who are 50+. It can be a true gift of love. 

My next blog post will have a holiday theme. I’ll put on my elf costume and see you in two weeks! Meanwhile, if you have any questions, comments, or ideas about topics you'd like me to consider, please write to me@aarp.org and put "blog" in the subject line. 

© 2021 Suzanne Spitz Carmichael 
I happened upon a list of “commemorative months” the other day. My favorites? March is “National Umbrella Month,” and June is “National Give a Bunch of Balloons Month.” Weird but true. 


This story is provided by AARP Maine. Visit the AARP Maine page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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