By Veronica H. Heide, Au.D.
Audiologist with Audible Difference, LLC in Madison
When we think about how we hear, most of us think about our ears. While our ears sense and convert sounds into electrical signals that our brain can process, it is our brain that is responsible for interpreting what we hear.
As we age, changes in our hearing mechanism occur for many reasons, including genetic factors, noise exposure, drug exposure, and changes in the body’s metabolic and vascular systems. Older adults experience changes in the aging sensory system, a decline in speed and accuracy of neural processing, decreased sound clarity, and an inability to follow rapid speech. These changes have several effects, including loss of short term memory and a decline in the ability to recognize and understand speech, especially soft or distant speech and speech in backgrounds of noise. Hearing loss that interferes with everyday activities affects one in four adults between the age of 60-69, half of adults between 70-79, and eight in ten adults over 80 years of age.
Hearing loss causes our brains to constantly work harder to convert sound into meaning. With hearing loss, our brains devote more resources to monitoring our auditory landscape. This takes resources away from areas of our brain that are responsible for other senses, such as balance and vision. Perhaps you have seen someone trying to drive and talk on their phone. When that happens, their brain is trying to focus on the conversation at the expense of driving safely. Hearing loss also gradually isolates us from our environment. We can’t hear water dripping from a distant faucet or the phone ringing from another room. It makes it harder to interact with family and friends when participating in group conversations or conversing at a noisy restaurant.
New research suggests that hearing loss is the single biggest potentially modifiable risk factor of dementia. Individuals with untreated hearing loss have reduced brain function, increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, increased risk of falling, increased risk of hospitalization, and twice the risk for depression as those who were treating their hearing loss.
With so many factors to consider and so many treatment options, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Prior to purchasing any hearing device, it makes sense to see a licensed Doctor of Audiology to evaluate your abilities and to recommend a treatment plan for your specific hearing needs.
New technologies in hearing instruments are providing many treatment options to match your hearing abilities with lifestyle needs. Improved features include a more natural sound experience and improved performance in difficult listening environments.
New technology also includes convenient options such as improved moisture resistance, rechargeable batteries, and wireless Bluetooth connectivity to other audio devices such as cellphones, tablets, and televisions. Your success with the technology is directly related to the professional care and support you receive. Too often, consumers shop for hearing instruments based solely on the price of the devices, without realizing that there are limited or no professional procedures or services included. You want to find good value when you look for hearing technology, but your decision should include a combination of both the product and the professional expertise and care that accompanies it.
If you or someone you know have concerns about your hearing, it is very important to see an audiologist. Medicare will cover the hearing evaluation with a referral from your primary care physician. Don’t fall for advertising that poses as a research organization, promises free goods, or promises performance or pricing that sounds too good to be true. Be a savvy and smart consumer when it comes to taking care of your ears. Your hearing is one of the most important factors in maintaining healthy aging.
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