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Published on December 02, 2015

Facing up to hearing loss

Facing up to hearing loss

Deep down, I knew I had suffered some hearing loss.  But it was only after getting my ears tested that I realized the impact that could have on my work and family.

The test revealed that I suffered only about a 5 percent loss of hearing when talking with my male friends, including my ear, nose and throat physician. But I faced nearly a 50 percent loss of clarity when listening to my wife.

Insert your joke here.

Hyannis otolaryngologist J. Nicholas Vandemoer, MD, FACS, told me that my overall hearing loss was about 20 percent. But it was particularly poor when it came to picking up higher frequencies.

Knowing how many times I have asked my wife to repeat herself, this came more as an affirmation than a surprise.

I am not alone. As many as 48 million people in the United States report some degree of hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. Like me, about 60 percent are still working, and there is growing research that hearing loss can affect your career and compensation.

How many times did I possibly fail to hear or understand a professional colleague? Unlike my wife, others might have been too polite to point out the problem.

My hearing loss came on gradually. During testing, Dr. Vandemoer asked me these questions. (My answers are in italics.)

  1. Have you noticed difficulty hearing? Yes.
  2. Did the problem come on suddenly or gradually? I had to admit I am missing words.
  3. Is there hearing loss in your family? My grandparents wore hearing aids.
  4. Are one or two ears affected? My right is worse.
  5. Were you subjected to chronic loud noise during your life? Lots of long commutes, rock and roll and mowing the lawn.
  6. Do your ears ring? No, thankfully.
  7. Did you have ear infections as a child? Yes, many times.
  8. Do you have ear pain? No.
  9. Is it harder to hear the voices of men, women or children? Much harder to hear women’s voices
  10. Do you notice environments where it’s challenging to follow the conversation? Tough, especially in restaurants.

So, despite a pang of denial and emerging vanity, my next question was obvious. Should I get a hearing device? (Apparently “hearing aid” is not in vogue.)

Yes and no, said Dr. Vandemoer.

A hearing device could increase sounds by 20 to 30 decibels, he said. But, in my particular case, hearing loss was about more than turning up the volume.

The bigger issue: I heard the words, but I wasn’t necessarily hearing the right words. More precisely, I was missing about 12 out of every 100 words I thought I heard correctly. A person with average hearing misses about two words per 100, said Dr. Vandemoer.

My hearing test confirmed that I could miss the consonants or vowels at the beginning or end of a word – even a simple, one-syllable one. A “b” may sound like a “p,” and “m” like an “n.”

A hearing device will not address that problem. Instead, Dr. Vandemoer advised that I focus on ways to concentrate more when talking with friends, family and business colleagues.

His recommendations:

  • Listen carefully and talk more slowly.
  • Try to remain in front of the people you are talking with.
  • Follow their lips as they speak.
  • Think about the words you are hearing. Do they make sense in context?
  • When necessary, don’t be shy or embarrassed asking someone to slow down or speak more clearly. (On several occasions since doing this, I have learned that the other person also is suffering some hearing loss).
  • Share your condition with other friends and family. They may be less frustrated with you once you’ve explained your hearing loss and what you’re doing about it.

Before choosing a hearing device, Dr. Vandemoer suggested I consider other technologies that will improve my hearing, such as a wireless earphones or plugs for watching television. That way, I won’t have to turn up the volume beyond the comfort of others.

But a hearing device still may be part of my solution, though it will have its drawbacks, Dr. Vandemoer cautioned.

“Hearing aids are not like glasses,” he said.  “Glasses are not intrusive; in most cases, you don’t even realize you are wearing them. Hearing aids require far more management.

“It may not fit in the ear properly. It needs batteries replaced. They have to be constantly adjusted depending on the environment. They need cleaning and servicing. They get lost more easily than glasses.”

He wasn’t discouraging me about getting a hearing device, just sharing the challenges associated with this next stage of life.

But at least now I feel much better informed to address my hearing loss before it gets more serious, both medically and socially.