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Navigating the Sounds of Time: Understanding Hearing & Aging

Joseph Gerald (Jerry) Reves, M.D.
October 02, 2023
Person cupping left hand to left ear in attempt to hear better.

As we age, it's natural to experience changes in our senses, including our hearing.

Healthy aging does not mean perfect health or remaining as one was in the earlier years. No, quite to the contrary, healthy aging involves a number of changes that cannot be prevented and are normal consequences of aging.

One of the body’s many systems affected by aging is the sense of hearing. Approximately one-third of the elderly population have hearing loss, and the loss increases with age. Particularly prone to loss are high-pitched sounds like the voices of women and children. Hearing loss can range from mild loss to total loss of hearing.

Types of Hearing Impairment

There are generally two types of hearing changes that are normal in aging.

  1. One is the gradual loss of hearing that is called presbycusis. It is usually about the same loss in both ears and gradually progresses over time. This tends to run in families and if one’s parents lost hearing as they aged it is possible/probable that you will too. Signs of hearing loss are below. The most common sign of hearing loss is that one does not hear the phone ring or a watch alarm. Other signs are that in conversation, you frequently ask the person you are talking with to repeat or speak up.

  2. Another common form of impairment is tinnitus, a ringing in the ear or a dull roar, like the ocean. Some describe this as a dull “white noise” similar to the background sound machines make. Tinnitus can also be a sign of some illnesses so it should be reported to a physician if it happens to you.

Abnormal Causes of Diminished Hearing

Some easily treatable causes of loss of hearing are wax build up in the ear canal or a punctured ear drum. Viruses and bacteria can also cause hearing problems as can brain tumors. If there is loss of hearing, one needs to be evaluated by one’s physician to be certain that there is nothing causing it that can be treated. If there is sudden loss of hearing, this is a medical emergency and needs to be dealt with as such.

Consequences of Hearing Loss

Losing normal hearing has many consequences. It can make socializing a lot less fun if you cannot hear what is being said. It can cause family members to fret because they become frustrated in trying to communicate. They may even think that you are suffering from some form of dementia since you are not your old self. If alarms are not heard such as a smoke detector, results could be devastating.

Devices to Enhance Hearing

Hearing aids have improved and can be used very effectively to address many forms and degrees of hearing loss. There are also other devices for amplifying the phone and TV so that these sources of sound can be better heard. Likewise, doorbells, alarm clocks and smoke detectors can be augmented with hearing enhancement so that the hearing impaired can hear them should they go off.

Behavior When One Is Losing Hearing

The most important thing to do is be sure that those with whom you are interacting know that you have trouble with your hearing. Ask people to look at you when talking and to speak a little more loudly than normal (not shout) and to use facial expressions and hand gestures. Do not hesitate to ask them to repeat what was said.

When talking to someone who you know has lost normal hearing, be patient, be supportive, and talk slowly, facing the individual. Do not try to carry on a conversation in a very loud setting, such as many of the Charleston restaurants.

Never cover your mouth since lip reading and gesture reading are aids that the hearing impaired rely on for communication. The COVID mask-wearing time was a particularly challenging time for those who have hearing difficulties.

Bottom Line

It is normal for people to lose some hearing as we grow older, just as we lose other functions of an earlier age. It is important to rule out medical, treatable causes of hearing loss and then, when necessary, get the appropriate hearing device aids. Your physician can assist you in dealing with this common and normal part of aging.

Signs of Hearing Loss

  • Trouble hearing conversation on telephones
  • Difficulty following conversations when two or more people are talking
  • Often ask people to repeat what they said
  • Need to turn up the TV or radio – others notice the loud volume
  • Background noise makes hearing difficult
  • Others appear to mumble when speaking to you
  • Difficulty hearing children and others who have high-pitched voices

Worried about hearing loss? MUSC Health Ear Nose & Throat (ENT) can help.

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