Aging and hearing loss: What’s normal?

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Aging and hearing loss: What’s normal?

Hearing loss is common among Canadian seniors. The Canadian Hearing Society estimates that 60% of people over age 65 have some degree of hearing loss, and this figure is expected to rise as our population ages.

Because hearing loss is so common among older adults, people often assume that it is an unavoidable part of aging, and that nothing can be done to prevent or manage it. If you think that you or someone you care about is experiencing hearing loss, it’s important to seek medical advice. Hearing loss can have negative, life-altering effects that are too significant to ignore.

What causes hearing loss in seniors?

The most common reason for hearing loss in seniors is presbycusis, which is caused by gradual, age-related changes to the inner ear (its structure, blood flow, auditory nerve or the tiny hair cells that pick up sounds) and/or in how the brain processes sounds and speech. This type of hearing loss is called “sensorineural hearing loss” and it tends to be permanent.

Age-related hearing loss develops slowly, so people often don’t realize they have it. Research from the Canadian Health Measures Survey showed that nearly three-quarters of people aged 60 to 79 who had measurable hearing loss were unaware of it.

These factors can also contribute to hearing loss:

  • family history of hearing loss
  • exposure to loud noises (repeatedly over time, such as working in a loud environment, or a one-time exposure to a very loud noise, such as a gunshot, close to the ear)
  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • other diseases (such as autoimmune diseases, viruses, bacteria, heart conditions, stroke, tumour)
  • brain, head or ear injury
  • certain prescription medications
  • circulation problems, such as high blood pressure
  • blockages (ear wax build-up, fluid in the ear, ear infection, problems with the eardrum; this type of hearing loss is known as “conductive hearing loss” and it is usually treatable)

It’s important to see a physician to determine the causes of hearing loss, since it may be related to another health condition. He or she may refer you or your loved one to an audiologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist).

If hearing problems or deafness occurs suddenly, seek health advice as soon as possible – it could be a medical emergency.

What are the signs of hearing loss?

If you notice any of these signs from your senior loved ones, encourage them to consult a physician:

  • Asking people to repeat themselves
  • Having difficulty understanding or following conversations
  • Thinking that other people are mumbling
  • Having trouble hearing over background noise
  • Not hearing high-pitched sounds (like the voices of women and children)
  • Not hearing sounds like the telephone or doorbell
  • Using a TV or radio at high volume
  • Perceiving some sounds as being too loud
  • Complaining of ringing, roaring or hissing in the ears (tinnitus)

How does hearing loss affect seniors?

Seniors who can’t hear well often suffer a decline in their quality of life. They may feel embarrassed, lonely, frustrated or distressed because of their hearing loss, and they may become socially isolated or withdrawn as a result.

Hearing loss can affect how seniors interact with others. According to the National Institute on Aging, “Sometimes older people are mistakenly thought to be confused, unresponsive, or uncooperative because they don’t hear well.” People who are hard of hearing may also miss out on important information (such as safety warnings, alarms and directions from health professionals), and they face a higher risk of cognitive decline, dementia, depression, falling, and other health and safety issues.

How is hearing loss managed?

Age-related hearing loss is incurable, but there are treatments and coping strategies that can help improve a person’s hearing and/or help them stay socially active. There is a reason to be optimistic: the Canadian Hearing Society says that “90% of people with hearing loss can improve communication with a properly fitted hearing aid, counselling or environmental changes.”

Depending on the causes of hearing loss, interventions could include surgery, hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive or adaptive devices (telephone amplifiers, visual alerts and assistive listening devices for use in movie theatres, churches, etc.), or learning lip reading or sign language.

How can family members, friends and caregivers help?

If someone you know has hearing loss, you can help them by:

  • Speaking slowly and clearly, and slightly louder than usual (but not shouting)
  • Reducing background and ambient noise (TV, radio, running water, etc.) or finding quiet spaces to talk
  • Ensuring there is good lighting so they can see your face clearly
  • Making sure the person knows you are speaking to them (face the person, get their attention, make eye contact, stay in the same room)
  • Not covering your mouth, and not eating or chewing gum when speaking
  • Using helpful gestures and facial expressions
  • Being patient and repeating yourself when necessary (try different words)
  • Include the person in conversations with others, rather than talking around them

Additional resources

The Journey to Better Hearing for Seniors: Opening Doors to a Hearing World (free video from Canadian Hard of Hearing Association)