It should come as no surprise that as we get older, our hearing ability can deteriorate. Especially for the baby boom generation, who grew up without the benefit of knowing how important it was to wear ear protection or that the ringing sound in your ear after a concert was not exactly the best measure of how good a concert really was after all. At 54, I already know that my hearing has faded over the past five years. I’m finding myself turning my head and saying, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
But we don’t always notice hearing loss right away, either in ourselves or in those we love. Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services, wrote in a Washington Post article last year how she missed the signs of hearing loss in her father. He was withdrawing from the world and not engaging socially like he used to. She noticed he was shuffling his feet, and he wasn’t his previous lively self. She chalked it up to his age, but didn’t realize right away how his hearing was affecting him.
“My dad’s situation became an aha moment for me — as a daughter and a doctor,” she wrote. “To my astonishment (and some embarrassment), I realized that hearing loss, which often is fairly easily alleviated, is about more than it seems. And it continues to be a largely hidden psychological and societal problem. These days, hearing loss or the prospect of hearing loss doesn’t affect only people age 70 and older. It also affects their baby-boomer children and anybody else who is either a parent or a caregiver or a dependent.
“In short, just about everybody,” Yeh concluded.
The fact is, Yeh explained, the National Institutes of Health says almost 25 percent of Americans ages 65-74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have a disabling form of hearing loss. Younger doesn’t mean better, either: 15 percent of Americans between 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss because of typical decibel levels that assault our ears at sports events, rock concerts, all our digital gadgets that play music and even the hair dryers that many people use.
There are ripple effects associated with hearing loss. When someone disengages from people around them, it could be because they can’t follow the conversation.
“Hearing loss affects communication, so it is not surprising that several studies as well as consensus among medical professionals point to a strong association between hearing loss and depression,” Yeh wrote.
And studies found that hearing loss negatively impacted peoples’ health more than other causes like heart disease, hypertension or diabetes.
Yeh is sounding the alarm. We need to pay attention to those around us (and to be honest, to ourselves) for signs of hearing loss. And though people may be embarrassed about wearing a hearing aid, they’re less bulky and obvious now than they used to be, and the technology is sophisticated enough to filter voices instead of just turning up every sound around you.
Yeh offered other facts about hearing loss:
- Hearing loss is associated with six times the risk of falls, as well as an increased risk of dementia and earlier mortality.
- Hearing loss is associated with isolation and loneliness as you lose the ability to communicate with your family and friends (grandchildren included!).
- There is a long-term French study that shows those with hearing aids reduce their risk of dementia to the same as normal hearing, but without hearing aids there is an increased risk of dementia.
- Early screening and early intervention is important to keep you connected with others, your children and grandchildren, and keeps your brain active, building cognitive reserve, to keep your brain fit (and reduce risk of dementia).
- It’s not about hearing loss . . . it’s about what you gain when you hear!
These days, there are plenty of resources available if you’re concerned about hearing loss. AARP has an entire Hearing Center (http://www.aarp.org/hearingcenter) that has articles about hearing loss and hearing aids, including how-to’s and Q & As. And there’s a new National Hearing Test that you can take over the phone. It’s free for AARP members for a limited time (https://www.nationalhearingtest.org).
Yeh is sounding the alarm about the importance of hearing loss as a huge health issue. She summed it up perfectly in a report published by the National Academy of Medicine, in which she wrote that baby boomers can solve this looming public health issue.
“We are the ones who brought civil rights. We put a man on the moon. We had rock ‘n’ roll, which is why we have hearing loss, and we brought Woodstock. If this isn’t a generation that can bring about that change, I don’t know what else is.”
Ron Mori is a board member for the Washington, D.C., JACL chapter, and manager of community, states and national affairs — multicultural leadership for AARP.