Hearing loss is extremely common: About 1 in 3 people between 65 and 74 years of age, and nearly half of those older than 75, have trouble hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
But it typically occurs gradually — often as if the vholume of sounds such as people’s voices is slowly being turned down while ambient white noise grows louder. That means it’s easy for someone to miss or ignore their own hearing loss, sometimes for years.
Other people often notice it first. So if you’re popping in on or spending the holidays with a loved one, particularly if they are 65 and older, and notice signs of hearing loss, it’s important to encourage them to get tested. Early intervention can make a big difference in their long-term health and wellness, says Stefanie Wolf, AuD, a clinical audiologist with Audiology of Nassau County in Rockville Centre, New York: “It’s true that hearing loss is extremely common with age, but that doesn’t mean you need to accept it. It can be socially isolating, is linked to depression, as well as dementia and falls, and it’s completely treatable — the earlier the better.”
Some common signs of hearing loss:
The household entertainment is loud.
“If their TV is blaring, they should have a hearing exam,” Wolf says.
They seem to be working hard to understand you.
You can usually tell when someone isn’t comprehending what you’re saying. It could be their hearing. Your loved one may also ask you to repeat yourself or complain that you or others are mumbling. (One more reason a hearing test is important is it can rule out dementia, which can easily be confused with hearing loss.)
Their responses don’t match the conversation.
Higher frequencies are often the first to go when hearing becomes diminished. That means vowel sounds, which people tend to express more forcefully and in a lower pitch, come across more clearly than consonants, which are higher in frequency. The result: It’s challenging to discern if someone is saying “That was a great fair” or “That was a great pear.” If you notice that they respond inappropriately to comments or questions, it may be because they’re mishearing the words.
They’re speaking loudly.
“Whenever I’m in a restaurant, I can usually tell who has hearing loss because they’re talking too loudly for the situation,” Wolf says. We raise our voices when we can’t hear ourselves properly.
Alarms don’t get their attention.
A timer dings, the doorbell rings or their phone chimes and they don’t seem to notice. “Not hearing alarms is obviously concerning on many levels, and is a definite sign they should see an audiologist,” Wolf says.
Telephone conversations are harder for them.
People with hearing loss may struggle to understand what’s said during phone calls because they can’t see the other person’s mouth moving, Wolf says. Take note if a loved one seems to have trouble hearing and/or is pausing to turn up their phone’s volume while on a call.
They’re a little unsure on their feet.
Walking is a multisensory experience: Your body is seeing, feeling and, yes, hearing the environment around you as you move through it, helping you keep yourself steady. “You don’t think about your auditory sensory response to the floor because you’re used to it,” Wolf says. “But when it’s compromised, so is your balance.”
They avoid or disengage during social situations.
There are many people who hear well enough to get by in the quiet of their home, but can’t filter out the background noise from parties, restaurants or other bustling places to focus on normal conversations. “Even a slight amount of hearing loss can cause problems in noisy environments,” Wolf says. Notice if your loved one clams up during big family gatherings or seems frustrated or fatigued during conversations or at social events.
Written by: Selene Yeager, AARP