Growing older is not easy. After sixty years or so on Earth, our bodies can begin to struggle. One challenge common to the elderly is hearing loss. Hearing loss can be scary since we take in so much of the world with our ears. Having a conversation and listening to another person is one of the main ways we communicate with the world around us. But it isn’t just conversations with friends and family that are affected by hearing loss. Listening to music may be a relaxing pastime that is no longer enjoyable. Watching a favorite show on TV may become difficult. Luckily, there is hope! Hearing loss can be prevented, and while it can’t be cured, there are many ways to assist someone suffering from hearing loss.
Hearing Problems in Elderly Adults
Hearing loss in the elderly is not as straightforward as it sounds. It tends to happen gradually, so older adults do not always know it is happening at first. They may not realize they are not hearing as many environmental sounds as they are used to. A younger relative may come over and notice the TV is much louder than usual, but the senior had no idea. When speaking with an older adult, it may seem like they are not really paying attention or participating in the conversation. This could be because their ability to hear consonants is fading, and making it difficult to follow along with normal conversation. These are some of the first signs of hearing loss that younger friends and family members can look for and know when their older relatives may need help.
Causes of Hearing Loss in Elderly Adults
In order to understand the reasons for hearing loss in the elderly, we need to have a very basic understanding of how the ear functions. The Mayo Clinic provides us with an easy explanation:
Your ear consists of three major areas: outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear and cause vibrations at the eardrum. The eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear amplify the vibrations as they travel to the inner ear. There, the vibrations pass through fluid in a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear (cochlea).
Attached to nerve cells in the cochlea are thousands of tiny hairs that help translate sound vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to your brain. Your brain turns these signals into sound.
Odd as it sounds, the ear wasn’t really built to last. The tiny hairs that help translate sound vibrations tend to wear out as we age. Frequent exposure to loud noises – like too many rock concerts in the 70’s, working on a construction site with loud machinery, or lengthy periods of time driving a motorcycle – can cause these hairs to wear out faster.
Ear infections can cause hearing loss, as well as an abnormal growth in the ear. An illness that causes high fever could also cause damage to the inner ear and lead to hearing loss. A ruptured eardrum can also lead to hearing loss. When you were a kid, you may have heard someone say, “Never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear!” and while it sounded silly at the time, it’s no joke. The inner ear is a sensitive place.
One easily fixable cause of hearing loss for the elderly – or really anyone – is earwax build up. Luckily this is easily solved with ear drops from a local pharmacy, or a quick, painless procedure at your regular doctor’s visit.
Sudden hearing loss is less common, but can happen. Causes of sudden hearing loss in the elderly are generally limited to exposure to an extremely loud noise, head injury, a tumor, or illness.
Signs of Hearing Loss
“Am I losing my hearing?” is a very difficult question for an elderly person to ask themselves. In general, people do not like to admit they are struggling with anything, let alone a major sense that is necessary to navigate everyday life. But remember, there are solutions and various aides you can use to help alleviate hearing loss and lead a full life. Some signs of hearing loss in adults are:
- The feeling that everyone around you is mumbling. Certain sounds, like consonants, are more difficult to recognize as hearing declines. You may hear someone speaking but not be able to understand individual words. This can make having conversations feel exhausting.
- You can’t hear in restaurants, or other locations with significant background noise. This often leads to avoiding social gatherings.
- Difficulty hearing on the telephone. Cell phones can be tricky for a person with excellent hearing due to background noise or poor reception. It is even more challenging for those with hearing loss.
- Difficulty hearing the TV. If you are turning your volume up higher than usual, or others are remarking that your television seems rather loud, you may be suffering from hearing loss.
- Your ears feel clogged due to sounds seeming muffled or like they are coming from a great distance.
Psychological Effects of Hearing Loss in the Elderly
Loss of hearing in old age isn’t simply frustrating, it can have an effect on an elderly person’s mental health as well. Not being able to communicate with the people around you can lead to a feeling of loneliness or even depression. Additionally, symptoms of hearing loss can sometimes be mistaken for symptoms of dementia. Elderly individuals suffering from hearing loss may appear confused or unable to follow normal conversation. Since hearing tests are not part of annual wellness exams, hearing loss can be mistaken for dementia or other mental illness.
How to Get Hearing Aids for Elderly Adults
Once you and your doctor determine if you are suffering from elderly hearing impairment, the next step is looking for hearing aids for seniors. While hearing aides are expensive, many insurance companies will cover some if not all of the cost. The Hearing Loss Association of America also provides a list of options for financial assistance for those that need help covering the expense of hearing aids. Many states have programs to help you find services that will offer hearing aid loans or financial assistance. Many local civic organizations, such as the Kiwanis or Lions Clubs, might be able to provide financial assistance to purchase or acquire hearing aids and other assistive devices.
How to Prevent Hearing Loss in Elderly Adults
Ear protection is key to preventing hearing loss for elderly adults and really, people of all ages. If you’re heading out to a rock concert or Formula1 race, pack your earplugs. If you are working with power tools for lengthy periods of time, or even just mowing your lawn, use ear protection. Have your hearing tested regularly. You can find a location to get a hearing test, and even take a hearing test at home for the elderly online here. If you notice your hearing is starting to suffer, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent additional hearing loss.