Listen Up: All About Hearing And Hearing Aids

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Are you continually asking people to repeat themselves or simply nod when you're unsure of what someone is saying? Do you have difficulty following a discussion in a group setting? If you are older, you might suffer from age-related hearing loss and you have lots of company. 

How We Hear

Going back to the basics, sound is caused by vibration that causes sound waves. For example, when a person talks to you, they create a vibration in the air that causes waves of energy to enter your outer ear. These waves travel to the middle ear where they bounce against the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. This vibration is picked up by the ossicles, three small bones in your middle ear. These vibrating bones transfer the vibration to the cochlea, a snail-like structure in the inner ear. The cochlea is lined with small hairs that turn the vibration into signals that are transmitted to the brain. The brain translates these signals into sound, and you hear the person's voice.

Hearing Loss in Older Adults

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 25 percent of people 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis, can be related to genetics or certain medical conditions, but the most common cause is noise exposure. Too many loud rock concerts, hanging around a gun range, or working in a noisy industrial work environment can cause hearing loss over time, especially if you don't wear ear protection.

Hearing loss is not just inconvenient and frustrating for the sufferers and their friends and family, it can have serious health ramifications. It can cause cognitive decline, social isolation, and depression. The ear also affects your balance, so hearing loss can result in unsteadiness in older people and may result in debilitating falls.

Hearing Assistance

Fortunately, there is help for most cases of hearing loss in older adults. Hearing aids don't fix your ear defects, but they can magnify the sounds that enter your ear so that you can hear them better. Hearing aids come in several different styles. Your hearing specialist will conduct a thorough test of your hearing and then recommend a type of device that is appropriate for your hearing loss, lifestyle, and budget.

There are two basic categories of hearing aids: in-the-ear (ITE) and behind-the-ear (BTE). Each category has several varieties, from those that fit entirely in the ear canal and are invisible to other people to those that are molded to fit perfectly inside the ear to those that fit on top of the ear with a tiny receiver that goes inside the ear. Each of these types has certain advantages and disadvantages, such as longer battery life, small size (which can be a problem for people with dexterity problems), and those that are more affected by wax build-up. You and your hearing professional should consult about which type is most appropriate for your needs and preferences. And once you have hearing aids that are right for you, a whole new world of sound will reopen for you, and you no longer need to feel left out of the conversations going on around you.