Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
Hearing loss is one of the most common medical conditions affecting seniors,
and it has an impact on mental, social and physical well-being. Dr. David
Kim, a Torrance Memorial Physician Network Ear Nose and Throat specialist,
says early diagnosis and thorough management of hearing loss are important
for ensuring good health.
1. How does hearing loss affect seniors?
Hearing loss can lead to many negative emotions including insecurity, frustration
and anxiety. Many seniors feel ashamed of not being able to understand
what others say and may avoid conversations or social gatherings as a
coping mechanism. These feelings can lead to social withdrawal, loneliness
and even depression.
Seniors with hearing loss may lose autonomy and self-esteem, reducing their
overall quality of life. Hearing loss can place a strain on spousal and
familial relationships due to an apparent “lack” of communication.
Hearing loss also has significant implications in physical health. Patients
with hearing loss have decreased awareness of their surroundings and potential
dangers, putting them at higher risk of falls and other accidents. For
example, hearing-compromised individuals may not hear a smoke detector
in a fire. These issues are further complicated by a high prevalence of
balance issues in senior populations.
2. What are early signs of hearing loss?
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports
one in three Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 has some degree of
hearing loss. People with hearing loss will often ask others to repeat
themselves in a conversation or turn up the television volume high. They
have difficulty understanding conversations in public places with background
noises. They raise their voices without realizing it. They may avoid group
conversations, or simply nod and smile to avoid embarrassment. A person
with hearing loss may be perceived as unresponsive or uncooperative by
a family member or friend, and this can be mistaken for a cognitive decline.
3. What are different types of hearing loss?
Sensorineural hearing loss is due to a damage to the hearing pathway in
the inner ear and brain. It can occur due to aging, chronic noise exposure,
head trauma or infections. Aging-related hearing loss tends to affect
both ears and reduces high-frequency hearing – creating difficulty
understanding women’s and children’s voices, and certain consonants,
such as f, h or s. Conductive hearing loss is the result of an impaired
transmission of sounds from the outer ear to inner ear. Common causes
include ear malformation, a foreign body in the ear canal (including earwax),
fluid build-up and ear infection/scarring.
4. What’s the first step to take if you think you have experienced
loss of hearing?
Consult an otolaryngologist for a comprehensive head and neck examination,
and an audiologist for formal hearing evaluation, because there are many
causes of hearing loss. For instance, I see a large number of senior patients
with cerumen (earwax) impaction, and all it takes to restore their hearing
is simple ear cleaning. At the other end of the spectrum, if you develop
sudden-onset deafness or significant drop in hearing, seek medical attention
immediately as it can be due to an inner ear infection/inflammation or
a stroke. These conditions often have a small window of treatment, and
permanent hearing loss can occur if not treated promptly.
5. What types of treatments and solutions are offered for hearing loss?
The mainstay treatment is hearing aids, and a wide range of designs and
functionalities are available on the market. In addition, assistive listening
devices with amplification capacity can be used on telephones, cell phones
and television to augment hearing. Behavioral modifications including
lip reading and planning social gatherings in relatively noise-free environments
can improve speech comprehension. Also, tell your family members and friends
about your hearing loss and ask them to speak clearly and slowly while
facing you directly. It’s important to ask for accommodation –
it is possible to maintain a good quality of life in spite of hearing
David Kim, MD, is an ear, nose and throat specialist with Torrance Memorial
Physician Network. He is located at 23550 Hawthorne Blvd., Ste. 125 in
Torrance and can be reached at 310-891-6733.