Hearing Loss: The “Social Sense”

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Helen Keller said, “I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

 

Wow! Did you know that out of all the senses hearing loss is said to be the most serious of the sensory impairments? It affects older people more often than any other chronic condition. The changes that take place as we get older begin long before they actually have a noticeable effect on us. We often brush them off as being part of the aging process. I know, because that’s what I did with hearing loss until I began to feel the isolation it was creating in my life. When I read the powerful statement, Helen Keller made about hearing loss, I felt like crying. She put into words what I couldn’t express myself. Not only the impact it has for the hearing impaired, but the importance of the loss, “the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thought alive, and keeps us in the intellectual company of others.” Hearing is our ‘social sense” and it’s what keeps us connected to each other.

So, obviously this is a very passionate subject for me. One of which I wish I’d have researched long before I started writing this article. My hope is that it will help those who are on the cusp of what to do about their own hearing loss.

I have what is called mixed hearing loss meaning that I have a combination of conductive loss and sensorineural loss. The conductive loss creates damage to the outer and middle ear’s ability to conduct sound into the inner ear. The sensorineural loss within the inner ear is damage to auditory nerve that carries the sound to the brain. This second one is actually the most common loss that happens as we age. It’s called “presbycusis. To make things worse for me I also have tinnitus on top of this. It sounds like a loud machine that never stops running. To be honest I never paid much attention to how bad my hearing loss was. I thought it was the typical loss that everyone gets as they get older until I started researching about it.

I fought getting hearing aids in the beginning because I remembered how my Dad complained about them. They only seemed to amplify the background noise making it harder to hear what people were saying. It wasn’t until I found myself feeling left out of conversations because I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. I’d sit there feeling isolated thinking more that it had to do with getting older than it did with not being able to actually communicate. When I finally broke down and bought my first pair I was surprised how sophisticated they’ve became. They’re like cell phones now, they get more hi-tech every year. As a matter fact I was able to connect an app with them on my phone and when people called me I could hear them through the hearing aids. I could also control the volume and settings according to the different place I went, like a restaurant or theater. At some point they stopped working, which meant I’d have to pay $500 to get them fixed or buy a new pair. These cost me $4000 already and I wasn’t about to spend any more money on them. I needed some time to think this through and find a cheaper way to buy them. I went for months without them thinking maybe I could get by without them. Lots of people I knew did that because they refused to pay that kind of money for hearing aids.

I started feeling frustrated, anxious, down and tired all the time. I couldn’t concentrate on the things I wanted to do. I was forgetting things more than usual. I remember saying to my husband somethings wrong, I feel like I’m not cognitively able to do things right. I went to the doctor had some blood test done everything came back normal and I felt even more frustrated because I knew something wasn’t right. I knew my lack of hearing was getting to me, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with why I was having the symptoms I was. I decided that getting my hearing aids fixed was still cheaper than buying a new pair so I took them in for repair.

I didn’t learn the nature of what had been happening to me or how bad my actual hearing loss was until I started doing the research for this article. I was shocked to find that a well-regarded study from John Hopkins University was showing a connection between hearing loss and age-relative cognitive decline that could lead to dementia as well. They kept track of overall cognitive abilities including concentration, memory, and planning skills finding that those with severe hearing loss enough to interfere with conversations were 24 percent more likely than those with normal hearing to see their cognitive abilities diminish. (See the links below for more detailed information.) That’s what I felt was happening to me. Other studies have shown that the potential upside to this is that treating the hearing loss more aggressively could help in hold off the cognitive decline. Another-words getting out those hearing aids you stuffed away in your drawer and putting them to good use. One point I want to make here is that they say, just because you have hearing loss does not mean you’re going to get dementia. It’s just one more factor among the many that can contribute to it. The way I look at it is, if I can do anything to prevent any kind of cognitive decline then I’m going doing it.

I’m hearing much better again since I got my hearing aids fixed. Still at times I can’t make out what one person is saying but can hear others clearly. They say it all has to do with the high pitch sounds of the vowels in words as well as some of the consonants. The words become like swiss cheese where there’s nothing left to them but a bunch of letters that don’t make since. This is why people often think that there’s nothing more wrong with me I simple have selective hearing. Sometimes we’re referred to as a senile elder, confused, cantankerous or maybe just plan stubborn. One women not long ago was trying to tell me something and I couldn’t hear because we were in an auditorium. The background noise was drowning out every word she said. After a while she started mocking me by moving her lips without any sound. She laughed as if I’d think it was funny. Trying to figure out what people are saying sometimes makes me feel like I’m an alien on your own planet.

Hearing loss is the one impairment that doesn’t get much empathy from others mostly because you can’t see it. But often too because people don’t have the patience to stop and help the way they would a blind person trying to cross the street. I know because I was once on the other side of it. My Dad had hearing loss too. I will never forget the time I said impatiently, “never mind it’s not that important.”

“Don’t do that to me,” he said. “I value what you have to say. It’s as important to me to hear it as it is for say it.” When he put it that way it made me realize how insensitive I was being to him, and I tried extra hard after that to make sure he understood me. There are things you can do to help those of us who are hearing impaired.

  • Face us when you’re talking. We’ll never hear you if you’re turned away from us or in another room.
  • Speak distinctly with clarity
  • Enhance your speech like the Italians with expression, but don’t over-exaggerate with lip movement or shout.
  • Give time for a response and don’t take a node of the head as assurance that we’ve heard you right.
  • Don’t talk with your hands over your mouth or any kind of obstruction that prevents us from being able to hear and read your lips at the same time.
  • Eliminate background noise.

In closing, I leave you with this thought: Silence is golden when you choose what you want to hear, but when that choose is taken away by hearing loss the silence becomes a lonely place to exist.

https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-07-2013/hearing-loss-linked-to-dementia.html AARP article on hearing loss

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_ John Hopkins study

https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/downloads/2n49t6593   Great link on the sensory changes in later life

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