Apr 29

Hearing Loss: Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs

by Dillon Kato

Hearing loss has become one of the most prevalent health conditions among seniors, behind only arthritis and hypertension. In fact, about one in three people over the age of 65 experience some level of hearing loss.

New advancements in detection and treatment for hearing loss mean it’s especially important to stay on top of this issue, as it can develop slowly and will only get worse the longer it remains untreated.

Dr. Crystal Dvorak, an audiologist with Rehder Balance and Hearing Clinic in Billings, said untreated hearing loss isn’t just about not being able to enjoy music, listen to the television, or hear people speaking. It can also lead to broader issues including depression, social isolation and increased anxiety.

“If you have something you used to do a lot, but have problems hearing, you’re not enjoying it like you once did. Eventually, you stop going to your bridge game, or a weekly coffee with your friends, you pull away from those things and people,” Dvorak said.

Many people assume that hearing loss, and other health issues, are just a part of getting older. While that is true, Dvorak said, it’s still a good idea to get a screening and see if the issue is one that can be helped.

“A primary care physician can be the first spot to go. To have insurance pay for an audiology test, you usually will have to have a physician recommendation,” she said.

In addition to aging, hearing loss can also be caused by family history, medications, or illness. An audiologist will be able to fully diagnose an issue and describe options for a person suffering from hearing loss. Sometimes the solutions can be relatively simple, such as a wax blockage in the ear that can be cleared, or learning more effective communication techniques.

“Their spouse might always talk to them from the other room, where they can learn to be face to face when they speak. The vision aspect is a big part of how we communicate, relying on body language cues and seeing a person’s mouth when we talk,” Dvorak said.

For more advanced hearing loss, an audiologist might recommend hearing aids, or in specific cases surgical solutions or certain types of implants.

Even since she entered the field in 2008, Dvorak said there has been remarkable improvement in the technology and size of hearing aids. Just recently, there are ones that communicate directly with iphones and ipads. So if you get a video of the grandkids, it can stream the sound right into your ears, or you can use the device to adjust the volume,” Dvorak said.

The doctor said while most people think of hearing loss as an on or off condition, where you either hear sound or don’t, in most cases it’s not like that at all. She said many of her patients have high frequency hearing loss, where they have trouble detecting certain consonant sounds, making it seem like people talking to them are mumbling.

“They can hear, just not get the details. It’s like if I gave them a book, but removed a few of the letters from it,” Dvorak said.

Tracy Paliga with the Hearing Aid Institute, which has offices around Montana and Wyoming, said there are more loud noises, with more machinery and technology, around people in their everyday lives these days, which contributes to slower, gradual loss in hearing. “It’s a very small percentage who say a large noise went off and now can’t hear,” Paliga said.

The Hearing Aid Institute conducts tests and evaluations on hearing problems, offering solutions in some cases and referring to a specialist if a patient has a more serious issue.

In many cases, the institute fits people for hearing aids to help amplify the sounds around them.

“These days, they are very discreet. It’s like wearing a computer in your ear. In the mid-2000s, they went fully digital programmable, which means they compute faster and adjust better than ever before,” Paliga said.

New device technology has also been able to help people with tinnitus, a ringing sound in the ears caused by aging or ear damage.

“You know how fast computers are changing and upgrading, it’s kind of been the same for hearing aids. Even people who would not have been able to benefit 10 to 15 years ago can have hearing aids that work for them now,” Paliga said.

Dr. Roxanne Kohilakis, an audiologist at the Hearing Center at Rocky Mountain ENT in Missoula, said when a person starts to notice hearing loss, it’s important to get an evaluation to develop a baseline and have a comparison to track additional loss in the future.

“Let’s say it’s age related. Over time, it will continue to progress. The sooner we do something about it, the more we stimulate that hearing nerve in the brain, the better,” Kohilakis said.

The goal is to bring a person back as close to their normal level of hearing as possible.

“Normal is normal, it doesn’t matter what your age is,” Kohilakis said.

With hearing aids, one of the most common forms of treatment for hearing loss, she said companies have been putting a lot of work into the size and visual aesthetic of their latest devices. This push is especially relevant as the Baby Boomer generation, who have preconceived notions of hearing aids being large, noticeable, and just generally “for old people,” age and have hearing loss issues, Kohilakis said.

“A lot of people who come in are surprised at the size they are. Whether they are in-ear-canal aids or just more standard types, they can often be very difficult to even notice when you see a person wearing them,” she said.

Warning Signs
It’s important not to ignore the warning signs that might come from hearing loss.

  • Increasingly frustrated and socially isolated
  • Unable to hear well in social settings
  • Asking others to repeat themselves
  • You hear, but don’t understand others speaking
  • Others repeatedly asking you to turn down the television?

Hearing Loss Connection
A study by Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins Medical Center found that, after following more than 600 people aged 36 to 90 for 12 years, hearing loss was tied to an increased risk of dementia. For each 10-decibel loss in hearing, Lin saw a 20 percent increase in the risk of dementia. The risk increased as much as five times among test subjects that developed severe hearing loss during the study.

Dillon Kato is a reporter for the Missoulian.

No comments yet.

Add a comment