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Lifestyle: How is your hearing?

19 Jul 2018

Mild hearing loss? Don’t leave it too late to do something about it. Research suggests untreated hearing loss is one of the major factors in speeding up the age-related development of dementia.

As a youngster I could see that older people who were deaf seemed to be in a world of their own. I had a real fear of being deaf and decided if I had the choice of being deaf, or blind, I’d rather be blind. I know that is a silly mind game that only a young person would play, yet it is still true for me today. Something to do with my love of classical music and bird song.

At age 45 I was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss. My hearing had been damaged by too many guns going off beside my ears without earmuff protection. I had a shooting hobby and owned three guns/rifles by the time I was 12. My father represented New Zealand in big bore rifle shooting and I was keen to carry on the family tradition.

Still, I was lucky.

At 45 it is relatively easy to take on hearing aids. Try and introduce hearing aids to older people and they often don’t adapt to them. A doctor friend of mine suggested that hearing aid companies made their money out of the hearing aids that older people didn’t wear. My father had three or four sets of hearing aids lying in his bedroom drawers. Every three or four years he would try hearing aids again on the pleas of his family as he became more and more isolated. He would need the latest model in the hope that it would be better this time. He would wear them, off and on, for a few weeks and then leave them in his drawer permanently. He couldn’t adapt to them.

The older brain has trouble adapting to the nature of the sound that comes out of hearing aids. It takes some getting used to at any age. The improvement in hearing can be nullified by the amplification of other, unwanted sounds. Everything becomes louder, until the brain learns to filter out some of the unwanted noise. Hearing aids are certainly not perfect, but in most cases I am sure it is better than doing nothing.

New research suggests that some of the difficulty older people have in using hearing aids is due to their slower processing time. “A normal hearing aid can create distortion that is not helpful to a person with slower processing – the information essentially becomes jumbled and unclear,” says Grant Searchfield of Auckland University’s hearing and tinnitus clinic. He is undertaking research along with Megan McAuliffe from Canterbury University into a new way of tuning hearing aids for older people. They are trying to tune hearing aids so the user only hears the most important sounds.

The Listener (14 July 2018) takes up the story with the comment that researchers have known for a long time that un-treated hearing loss can speed up the age-related decline in our ability to process and understand information.

Why is this? Searchfield says in the Listener, the first reason is that the lack of hearing means the brain gets less of a workout, which can affect how well it works. The second reason is the loss of stimulation caused by social isolation or ‘not having enough good long chats with other people’.

Apparently 65% of the factors that cause dementia, such as genetic makeup, cannot be modified. The rest or 35% of the factors that cause dementia can be modified. You can do something about them. These include giving up smoking and preventing or treating diabetes. But, the number one modifiable factor in causing dementia is hearing loss.

Searchfield says that research has already shown that wearing hearing aids tuned in the normal way can help stave off mental decline, although they must be worn every day and used properly.

That last comment is interesting. I am 67 having worn hearing aids for over 20 years and I find it difficult to ‘use them properly’. For a start, they must be cleaned every day. And dried, every day. If they are not kept in a drying thingy they deteriorate reasonable quickly and stop working so well and, in the process, drive you nuts. Ear pieces and filters must be replaced every six weeks. And batteries can last as short as a couple of days, if they are stale.

The ear is wet and makes wax, by design. Hearing aids don’t like moisture. And wax clogs the tiny passages the sound is transmitted through. To use hearing aids properly you must be really focused about it.

And they are dear, although this is not the main problem. According to the Listener, hearing aids are free in the UK but only about 40% of those that need them, get them.

Searchfield again, “Cost is part of the problem, but so is the image of hearing aids. Many people don’t really believe they are going to help.”

I go back to my claim that I was lucky to get hearing aids at age 45. At 75 they would have been much harder to adapt to. It is well known that as we get older it is harder to change. I make the totally un-scientific claim that for every ten years of age it takes twice the effort to change. Another way of saying the same thing is that for every ten years of age one is twice as likely to fail in making needed changes in lifestyle or thinking.

Older people tell me - don’t leave it too late to make the changes you need to make as you get older. Get your hearing checked and into hearing aids if there is any deterioration in your hearing. The earlier the better. Help keep the brain healthy!

Keep asking great questions …

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