"What's That, Valentine? Speak Up!"

Senior couple on a romantic date

Jim and Grace are staying home for Valentine's Day this year. Their tradition was to go to their favorite romantic bistro for the occasion, but lately Jim's been having trouble understanding conversation when there’s background music and people talking.

Hearing loss is a very common age-related condition. For almost one-third of older adults, hearing ability decreases to the point that it interferes with our work and our enjoyment of life. It can also affect relationships. An October 2017 study from the University of Nottingham in the UK found that the spouses and partners of seniors with hearing loss also may experience a decline in quality of life.

These partners report that spousal communication suffers when their loved one struggles to hear. The study also found that these "communications partners" experience additional difficulties:

  • Their hearing-impaired partner can't hear the phone ring or hear the person who's calling, so the spouse must take over telephone duty.
  • In order to hear the TV or radio, their partner turns up the volume to a painful degree.
  • Increasingly unable to understand conversation in a noisy environment, the spouse with hearing loss may avoid social situations, which often means the other spouse also is at risk of social isolation.
  • The spouse of the person with hearing loss is stressed out by the increasingly difficult communication — and often feels guilty about it.

Relationship challenges aren't the only consequence of hearing loss, of course. According to the National Academy on an Aging Society, hearing loss is the third-most common chronic condition in older adults, behind only arthritis and hypertension, yet it is an often-overlooked health problem. Research shows that hearing loss raises the risk of dementia, depression, diabetes, heart disease and fall injuries. The stress and cognitive load caused by struggling to hear causes many seniors to sink into isolation and inactivity.

And yet, many seniors avoid seeking help when they — or more likely, their spouse or other family members — notice that something’s amiss with their hearing. They're in denial about the problem. They say, "Well, I'll wait until the situation is really bad before I bring it up with my doctor."

This is a bad idea, and here's why: Hearing consists of a complex cooperation between our ears and our brain. Audiologists say this can be a "use it or lose it" situation. With less input from our ears, our brains can lose the ability to process and understand sounds. Screening allows hearing problems to be diagnosed at an earlier stage so that treatment can preserve more of the brain's abilities. In most cases, the treatment for hearing loss is to be fitted with hearing aids.

Getting hearing aids is more complicated than, say, being fitted for eyeglasses. A certified audiologist will prescribe a hearing aid that best fits the patient's situation, but there is still an adjustment period as the patient learns to put the devices in, take them out and clean them. Seniors with a new hearing aid may feel frustrated at first. But rather than park their new hearing aids in the back of a drawer, they should return to the audiologist for an adjustment. Experts say it can take up to ten visits to get it right — but it's worth it. Spouses and partners can offer valuable encouragement during this time.

Need more convincing? A second University of Nottingham study examined all the clinical trials on hearing aid use worldwide. Said Dr. Melanie Ferguson, "There is good quality evidence that hearing aids are effective in enabling people to listen better and to participate fully in everyday activities. There is also evidence that there are benefits to their general health from using hearing aids." Ferguson says this study provides plenty of data to reassure people with mild or moderate hearing loss that using a hearing aid will provide a number of quality-of-life benefits.

The team also had a message for healthcare agencies. Said Ayla Ozmen of the UK charity Action on Hearing Loss, "Hearing aids are hugely beneficial to the lives of people with mild to moderate hearing loss. The fact that this affordable, effective intervention has been proven to enable people to continue taking part in everyday situations is extremely important. At a time when many local areas are proposing to cut hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, this research further demonstrates what a vital intervention they are."

Here in the U.S. as well, hearing loss has a huge negative impact on the lives of many seniors, and also raises the overall cost of their healthcare. And yet, said a research team from the University of Michigan, "Most people who need hearing aids are surprised that neither Medicare nor most commercial insurance plans cover the cost — which can run anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 per pair. There is often no price negotiation." They are conducting a study that they hope will drive policy changes.

Seniors may have some options to help them cover the cost of hearing aids. To learn more, read "Get Help Paying for Hearing Aids" in this issue.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge