According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly half of adults aged 75 and older have a hearing impairment. Unfortunately, when symptoms are ignored or left untreated, they can get worse.
Hearing loss also ushers in a variety of complications, including
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Feelings of isolation and loneliness
Let's take a closer look at hearing loss, information on hearing aids, and what caregivers can do to help their aging loved ones manage this issue.
Understanding Hearing Loss
More than 37 million American adults — that's 15 percent — report trouble with hearing. Hearing loss can be caused by a range of factors, including heredity and long‑term exposure to loud noises. Regardless of the cause, the risk of hearing loss increases with age.
Types of Hearing Loss
Generally, hearing loss can be divided into two groups:
- Sensorineural hearing loss, in which the inner ear or auditory nerve incurs permanent damage
- Conductive hearing loss (usually treatable), in which sound waves can no longer access the inner ear
Signs of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss often occurs gradually. That means that many people, including seniors, miss these initial symptoms:
- Speech sounding muffled
- Trouble understanding conversations (especially in noisy, crowded places)
- Difficulty identifying similar‑sounding consonants
- Needing to ask others to speak more slowly, clearly, or loudly
- Frequently turning up the TV or radio volume
- Avoiding crowded, noisy social settings
- Withdrawing from conversations to avoid frustration
According to the health experts at Harvard University, many doctors don't routinely check for hearing loss. So if you or a loved one is experiencing any of the signs listed above, ask for a formal hearing test at the next appointment.
Complications from Age‑Related Hearing Loss
There are many health risks linked to hearing loss.
- Isolation. People who have hearing loss may become frustrated, embarrassed, or even angry during social situations. This leads to social withdrawal. These feelings were stronger for seniors with hearing loss who did not use hearing aids, according to a study by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA).
- Depression. Because many hard‑of‑hearing seniors isolate themselves physically or mentally from conversations around them, they are more susceptible to loneliness and depression.
- Accelerated cognitive decline. Recent research indicates that hearing loss is linked to accelerated cognitive decline in seniors. What does that mean? Well, it suggests that loss of hearing — and potentially, the subsequent loss of socialization — can decrease brain stimulation, triggering a slow decline in thinking skills. This is alarming because it could put your loved one with hearing loss at a higher risk for memory loss and dementia.
- Risk of falling. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), "Having trouble hearing can make it hard to understand and follow a doctor's advice, to respond to warnings, and to hear doorbells and alarms." Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins University has added that even mild hearing loss can triple a senior's risk of falling.
In the following video, audiologist Dr. Jane Watson addresses several hearing loss issues, including signs of hearing loss, common causes, and possible solutions to the problem.
How Caregivers Can Help with Age‑Related Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is isolating for seniors, but it's also isolating for family caregivers. You might feel frustrated. You might sometimes wonder if you're not being heard because of hearing loss, confusion, or simply being tuned out. You might feel sad about losing a conversation partner.
So first, remember to give yourself care and time to step away.
Next, take these steps to support your loved one with their hearing loss:
- Make an appointment for a hearing test.
- Take notes on signs and symptoms of hearing loss that you have noticed.
- Discuss hearing loss management options with your loved one and their doctor. In some cases, cochlear implants might be suggested. In most instances, a doctor will recommend hearing aids.
Hearing Aids 101
If you've recently learned that your aging loved one needs a hearing aid, you may be concerned about choosing the right one. As you go through the purchasing and learning process together, remember this: While learning to use a hearing aid takes time, the payoffs are significant.
Hearing aids can vary in:
- Ear placement
- Special features
Hearing aids are made up of three parts:
While a hearing aid can't reverse hearing loss, it can significantly improve your loved one's hearing by reducing background noise and amplifying sounds.
Hearing aids collect sound, analyze, and adjust it according to factors like level of hearing loss, listening requirements, and surrounding sound levels, then deliver it back to the ears. Seniors with hearing loss in both ears may need two hearing aids.
Hearing Aids: Finding the Best Type for Your Aging Loved One
Available in both analog and digital styles, the most common forms of hearing aid include: completely in the canal (CIC), in the canal (ITC), in the ear (ITE), behind the ear (BTE), receiver in canal (RIC), receiver in the ear (RITE), and open fit.
Each style of hearing aid has distinct advantages and disadvantages. For example, while smaller hearing aids are more discrete, they may lack more advanced functionality, such as directional microphones and volume control. Additionally, hearing aids with small batteries can be a challenge for seniors who struggle with fine motor skills.
Recent technological developments have led to advancements in hearing aid design, including everything from wireless connectivity to remote controls.
Unfortunately, only one out of every five people who needs a hearing aid uses one. If you know someone who is elderly and pushing back against getting a hearing aid because of vanity or the belief that his/her hearing is "good enough," explaining that today's models offer more discretion and functionality than past models can be a useful persuasive tactic. We know that hearing and the elderly can often be a touchy subject to broach—yet the payoffs for those seniors who choose to use a hearing aid can be significant.
In the following video, audiologist Dr. Jane Watson describes the latest innovations in hearing aid technology, including the many accessories available to make it easy to hear in even difficult situations.
Hearing Aids: The Buying Process
Ultimately, the hearing aid that will work best for your aging loved one depends on unique factors, such as the severity of hearing loss and lifestyle. Your audiologist will work with you to select the best hearing aid for your loved one's needs.
When you or someone you're caring for needs a hearing aid, it can generate many questions. One hearing aid FAQ is "What should I ask before I buy?" In this video audiologist, Dr. Jane Watson answers this question plus four others addressing new technologies, price, and more.
Because hearing aids for the elderly can be a serious investment and can range between a thousand and several thousand dollars, be sure to ask about a trial period as well as a warranty, both of which can offer valuable peace of mind. While Medicare doesn't cover the cost of hearing aids, some insurance policies do. Additionally, some states offer medical assistance for hearing aids, while veterans may be eligible for free hearing aids.
This 10‑minute video by audiologist Jane Watson tells users and caregivers what they need to know about selecting, cleaning, and more.
Helping Seniors Learn to Use Hearing Aids
It's wonderful when a family member with hearing loss will actually consent to evaluation and wearing hearing aids. But if you think you have conquered the issue of hearing loss, think again.
It's important to remind your aging loved one that a hearing aid won't magically restore hearing or "correct" hearing in the same way that glasses "correct" vision. Acclimating to amplified sound can take time and practice, particularly in different environments. The "breaking in" period often includes complaints of too many noises, frequent adjustments, and high‑pitched squealing from the aids themselves.
Regular wear and proper care will help accelerate the adjustment period. This should be a partnership between the senior, caregiver, and audiologist. Learning more about how hearing aids work and scheduling follow‑up visits can help ensure that your aging loved one's hearing aid works at optimal capacity.
The Bottom Line
Age‑related hearing loss is a common yet frustrating part of life for many seniors and caregivers. The journey from symptoms to proper hearing aid wear can be a challenge. As a caregiver, you can play a key role in guiding, supporting, and learning about hearing loss alongside your aging loved one.