What's That? Let's Talk About Hearing
By Dr. Penny Stern
How many times have you found yourself asking someone to repeat what they’ve just said? Many of us think that diminished hearing is just a fact of life as we age. We feel embarrassed about having to admit that we cannot hear well, so we don’t. But we should. It is important to address hearing loss—or what seems to be hearing loss. Some of them may surprise you.
I recently had a thorough hearing evaluation performed by Dr. Hal Freed, a doctor of audiology in Bayside, New York. I was lucky. My hearing is still intact. But Dr. Freed reminded me that having my hearing checked regularly is just the first step. If a genuine hearing loss is found, it is vital to discuss the use of hearing aids. These can be life-changing when appropriately prescribed and used. But there are many other issues, too.
First, believe it or not, when you don’t hear well over a long period of time, the part of the brain that deals with hearing does not receive normal stimulation, which can result in brain damage. Most people are aware of the connection between heart disease and brain health, but less aware that researchers have found a link between untreated hearing loss and the development of dementia. Hearing loss can also be an indication that blood flow to the brain is being restricted, causing damage to nerves associated with hearing. And diabetics must be particularly vigilant. Diabetics have hearing loss at something like twice the rate as adults without diabetes. In this case, the problem is likely related to the effect of high blood sugar on nerve health.
Aside from physical problems, untreated hearing loss can have a profound impact socially. That is, when you can’t hear well, you are more likely to be socially isolated and depressed.
Let’s say that you think your hearing is fine. What can you do to keep it that way? Keep the noise down! Spending time in excessively noisy environments is a bad idea, as this can damage your hearing permanently. If you know that will be in a noisy place, use ear protection. A physician I know always carries a pair of earplugs to large parties. And, If you like using earbuds or headphones, turn the volume down! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the subway, able to hear someone else’s music despite the fact that they are using headphones or earbuds. Noise is NOT your friend!!
If your hearing seems to be gradually worsening, your problem might be simple—an accumulation of cerumen (ear wax). Earwax is completely normal, and serves the important purpose of providing protection in the ear canal. But when it accumulates excessively, hearing can be impaired. Whatever you do, DON’T use cotton swabs to do the job of clearing the cerumen—you run the risk of pushing the wax even farther into the ear canal where it can become impacted. The symptoms of impaction are hard to miss. They can include irritation, pain, tinnitus (ringing), dizziness and, of course, hearing loss. If this is a problem for you, it can be easily handled by your primary care provider or ENT specialist who will give your instructions as to how to manage this going forward.
You will also want to discuss any medications you are taking with your provider, since hundreds of medications—aspirin, ibuprofen, diuretics, and many others—may cause ear damage. Do NOT to stop taking your medications, As we like to say in medicine, a physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient! Let your doctor know. and she can make any appropriate changes.
Hearing health is critical to so many parts of your body. Take care of you ears!
Dr. Stern is a physician at Northwell Health, where she serves as Director, Preventive Medicine, at the Katz Institute for Women's Health and the Department of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention.