Active Aging: Hearing Loss

Fifty is the new 40. Or maybe even the new 30, judging from the energy, health and enthusiasm of most people in their 50s. Yet we can’t stop the aging process altogether, and hearing is one thing that begins to change noticeably in middle age.

Some degree of hearing loss is not uncommon in the 50- to 70-year-old age group, says Jeff Singer, an audiologist and senior VP of sales and operations for HearUSA Inc., a national chain of hearing care clinics with several St. Louis locations. “It is difficult to give statistics because so many of them do not get tested, but baby boomers will have hearing loss due to history of noise exposure,” he says.

Live music and iPods cranked up beyond safe levels can compromise hearing later in life, but loud noise is not the only culprit. Aging alone affects hearing in many people, and ear infections can cause temporary problems. “If you have any doubts about your hearing abilities, have a hearing test done,” Singer advises. “It is very important to know if it is a true hearing loss or a temporary hearing loss due to a medical condition that can be treated.”

Age-related hearing loss is known as ‘presbycusis,’ while hearing loss resulting from exposure to noise, say traffic or loud music, is termed ‘sociocusis.’ Ototoxic drugs are medications that can negatively impact hearing, and include certain types of antibiotics, aspirin taken in large doses, and some types of diuretics and chemotherapy drugs.

Admitting that you have a hearing problem can be difficult, but certain behaviors are tip-offs, says Michael Valente, director of adult audiology for Washington University Physicians. They include:

• Often asking others to repeat themselves.

• Others complaining that you have the TV on too loud.

• Assuming that others mumble or speak very quietly.

• Having trouble hearing women and children.

• Not understanding others, even if the volume seems adequate.

• Feeling anxious or overwhelmed in noisy situations.

Reducing noise levels, when possible, is a protective step. “If you have to raise your voice, it’s probably too loud,” Valente says. Ringing in the ears after exposure to noise is another sign that the volume was too high.

Although the thought of wearing a hearing aid may make a 50-year-old cringe, Valente notes that “hearing aids are so small today, you’d hardly notice them unless they were pointed out. Also, wearing hearing aids and not asking people to repeat is a lot less annoying.”

Some new hearing aids are designed to be hidden completely by positioning a small device behind the ear and running a very small, clear tube into the ear canal. Digital adjustment and Bluetooth technology make current hearing aids even more adaptive.

Valente suggests that all adults 50 and older have annual hearing exams conducted by a licensed audiologist, and they should be “glad that there have been great advances in hearing aid technology over the past decade.”