Seniors: The unheard melodies

  • May. 23, 2019 3:24 p.m.

The sights and sounds around us enable us to experience our world. Hearing impairment prevents us from hearing the melody around us – the chirping of birds, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the chatter of crickets, the lashing of waves against the shore, the innocent laughter of children, and the voices of our loved ones.

According to Statistics Canada, over one million Canadians have diagnosed hearing impairment and it is suspected that an equal number are experiencing hearing impairment, but are undiagnosed. It is estimated that more than half of Canadians over the age of 65 will experience some hearing difficulties during their later years of life.

Some people are unaware of their hearing impairment. If you have been feeling that others are mumbling or speaking very softly these days, or you have been asking family members to speak up or you been turning up the volume of your television these days, or you are having difficulty hearing over the telephone, you are likely to have some degree of hearing impairment.

Two categories of hearing loss exist, in general. Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound is not conducted efficiently to the ear drum and the inner ear. This is associated with conditions such as wax impaction, tumours in the ear, fluid in the middle ear, ear infections, perforated ear drum etc. and causes difficulty in hearing faint sounds. This type of hearing impairment can be corrected medically or surgically.

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. This type of hearing loss is permanent.

SNHL is usually caused by overexposure to loud noise, certain medications and chemicals toxic to the ear, heredity, head injury, or structural abnormalities of the inner ear. SNHL reduces our ability to hear high frequency consonants in normal speech as well as the ability to hear faint sounds and can be managed with appropriate hearing aids.

Age-related hearing loss (Presbycusis) occurs gradually as we grow older. Since the hearing loss is gradual, we may not even be aware of it. It seems to run in families and happens due to damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve.

Presbycusis usually affects both ears equally. It affects our ability to tolerate loud sounds or hear what others are saying.

While 25% of hearing loss in seniors is attributed to aging, a larger percentage is noise-induced. Over-exposure to noise is the most common preventable cause of hearing loss.

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, is a common condition affecting older adults. It can even manifest as occasional roaring, hissing, or buzzing, and may be heard in one or both ears. It may frequently be the first sign of hearing loss in older adults.

Those with high-frequency hearing loss will usually try to compensate by increasing the volume of the TV and radio, or moving closer to the TV, because the recognition of consonants can be increased by 50-90% by simply increasing the loudness.

Alternatively, they may reduce or even avoid social interactions. If you have been practicing this behaviour, or you’ve noticed your loved one engaging in this behaviour, it may be time to go to an ENT specialist or an audiologist for hearing assessment and get appropriate treatment.

A 10-year longitudinal study on aging reported that persons with hearing loss have increased tissue loss, in parts of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech, and cognition, with dementia risk increasing linearly with severity of hearing impairment.

Another study conducted at John Hopkins Institute links hearing loss to three-fold increased risk of falling, 36% higher probability of prolonged illnesses, and 56% higher risk of depression.

Assistive listening devices, mobile apps, and alerting devices can help some people with hearing loss. Cochlear implants are electronic devices for people with severe hearing loss. Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are a new category of hearing devices that adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss will be able to buy without a prescription.

Hearing loss is not an inconsequential part of aging, but a serious health concern with detrimental effects on our health and well-being. There is no better time than now to address your hearing impairment and to start enjoying the unheard melodies once again.

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. She was a resident of Red Deer for the past seven years, and was a board member of Red Deer Golden Circle till May 2012. Please send your comments to padmajaganeshy@yahoo.ca

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