Hearing loss is a common condition experienced by older persons. Hearing often diminishes with age. It is important to take steps to address hearing loss not only to improve a person's quality of life, but also to prevent cognitive decline. A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Aging showed that adults with hearing loss were three times more at risk of experiencing cognitive issues than those with out it. However, treating hearing loss may help stave off cognitive decline.
When it comes to slowing down the loss of hearing and improving the capacity to distinguish sounds, there are several options to discuss with a healthcare provider.
Types of Hearing Loss Require Different Correctional Approaches
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are four main types of hearing loss. Each one affects a different part of the ear and each one responds better to certain solutions. The four types of hearing loss are:
There are also varying degrees of hearing loss ranging from mild loss where a person may hear some speech sounds, but have a hard time hearing softer sounds, to profound hearing loss characterized by the ability to hear only very loud sounds.
The degree to which a person experiences loss of hearing will also be a consideration when weighing the options for corrective or coping measures. For most people that process is gradual and what works one year, may not be suitable five or ten years later.
Types of Assistive Devices
Assistive devices are also known as assistive technology, and they help a person to hear and understand what sounds are presented. These devices are often placed easily within or just outside the ear and can help to filter background noises, amplify sounds, and make sounds clearer.
These are the most common of assistive devices. They come in different styles. An audiologist will assess which type is best suited according to the type and severity of hearing loss.
Hearing aids can be placed behind the ear, in the top of the ear with a receiver in the ear canal, or the entire device can be placed inside the ear canal. Behind-the-ear hearing aids are more noticeable, but they work well for all degrees of hearing loss. Many people still prefer them over the in-ear options because their own voices aren't muffled, and there is no chance of earwax buildup that can damage the device. Smaller assistive devices that are placed within the ear can be difficult to adjust; however, they are a suitable option for people with mild to moderate hearing loss who still want a discreet option.
Hearing aids require regular maintenance and adjusting. They should also be turned off when not in use. If a person is unable to care for a hearing aid properly, implanted devices may be an option. Implanted devices work slightly differently than a traditional hearing aid. A traditional hearing aid works by amplifying the sounds, whereas the implanted devices work to increase the sound vibrations to the middle ear.
A middle ear implant is attached to the bone of the middle ear. This bone-anchored device is implanted behind the ear and transfers the vibrations directly to the skull.
Surgical implants are not a typical option for age-associated hearing loss; however, it is the only assistive hearing device that Medicare will cover when the requirements are met because it is considered a prosthetic device.
A cochlear implant is an assistive device best suited for individuals with profound hearing loss. It is a two part unit with an external receiver that sits behind the ear like a normal hearing aid. Then there is the small electronic device implanted inside the skin that acts as a microphone picking up environmental sounds. It also processes speech, transmits and receives signals from the speech processor, and then converts it into electric impulses that will be sent to different regions within the auditory nerve. It doesn't restore hearing completely, which is why it is reserved for people whose hearing loss is profound and has greatly impacted their life.
Personal amplifiers are small and portable. They are efficient at increasing sound levels while reducing the amount of background noise in areas such as a living room, a car, or even outside. A person can typically angle the amplifier towards a speaker or even the television with a microphone and can transfer the sound to earbuds or a headset. These devices are particularly handy for individuals who have trouble distinguishing background noise and speaking, but aren't ready for a hearing aid or need a little extra help with their assisted hearing device before getting new ones.
T-coils are commonly found within hearing aids and cochlear implants. They are basically a coiled wire that receives wireless signals. These received signals are "cleaned up" so that the person can hear a more clear sound free of background noise and also a higher quality of sound through a telephone. They are best thought of as a supplemental aid for those who need it.
Hearing loss may be unavoidable in the aging process, but that doesn't mean a person has to live with it. A healthcare provider can update aging people and their caregivers on the different ways technology is helping seniors live better lives.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of Hearing Loss. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/hearingloss/types.html. Last Visited April 16, 2016.
HopkinsMedicine.org. (January 22, 2014). Hearing Loss Linked to Accelerated Brain Tissue Loss. Johns Hopkins Medicine. News and Publications. Available at http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_. Retrieved 1/11/2016.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Assistive Devices for People with Hearing, Voice, Speech or Language Disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Available at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/assistive-devices-people-hearing-voice-speech-or-language-disorders. Last Visited April 16, 2016.
Ibid. Hearing Aids. Available at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing-aids. Last Visited April 16, 2016.