Can You Hear Me Now? The Rising Incidence of Adult Hearing Loss


Healthy Living – March 7, 2017
William Sturrock, MD - Eastern Maine Medical Center
Hearing loss is an increasing problem in the US as our population ages. Currently it affects about 40 million adults (15 percent of population) but over the next 40 years this number is anticipated to grow to over 70 million adults. In a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (Otolaryngology) from March 2 last week, researchers project that by 2060 this will become a major public health issue, with 67 percent of adults having serious hearing problems presenting over 70 years of age.

As anyone who has a hearing-impaired friend or relative can attest, the loss of hearing interferes with a multitude of everyday activities from shopping for necessities, ordering services over the phone, communicating with healthcare providers, etc. Indeed, one of the more humorous stories in my family relates to a conversation my mother had when she moved into a new neighborhood about the Halloween expectations. She misunderstood when the neighbor stated that she need not buy much candy because of fewer trick-or-treaters.  Instead she thought she needed to buy a lot because of a slew of anticipated bell-ringers.  After having only one family of four show up, she had left-over bags of candy enough to last a lifetime of holidays!

But this really can be a serious and dangerous problem, with researchers demonstrating higher incidences of depression and anxiety, higher rates of falls and hospitalizations, as well as an association between hearing loss and mental decline. So what should someone do if they are concerned about their hearing? Well, as usual, the first stop should be with the primary care physician. There may be a simple solution such as removing a wax build-up or coming off medications that are associated with hearing loss. If that does not solve the issue, then a visit with an audiologist may be in order, and if the problem is severe enough one may need a hearing-aid. Unfortunately these are often very expensive, and not covered by most insurance plans. Also, it may take some time getting used to using one, as it regularly takes longer to adapt to an aid than it does to a new pair of glasses.

For those who are skeptical about the values of hearing aids, another study just published in the American Journal of Audiology last week, looked at a group of 154 patients between age 55 and 74 with moderate hearing impairment and divided them into groups. Some received a higher quality digital device fitted by an audiologist, while others used an over-the-counter version without the personalized counselling. Not surprising, the group with the audiologist-fitted aids reported statistically significant higher levels of satisfaction.

However, for those who want to do something now to preserve their hearing and perhaps avoid the need for these devices altogether, there is some common-sense preventive advice:
  1. Decrease your everyday exposure to noise in general. This especially applies to ear buds that you may wear to listen to tunes, video games, etc.  Turn the volume down at all times as it is never too late to preserve the hearing that you currently have.
  2. Wear earplugs or noise-filtering headphones if working in an environment with industrial noise.
  3. Use the same protection at home when using power tools such as circular saws, lawn-mowers, blowers, trimmers, etc. Even some vacuum cleaners are too loud for the sensitive human ear.
  4. If you have hobbies with noise exposure such as using firearms, playing in a rock band, or riding recreational vehicles don’t worry about looking ‘cool’ and forget your protection.  You will be sorry one day when your grandson comes up to whisper ‘I love you’ in your ear and you cannot hear him.