February 22, 2018 by Jean
A couple of years ago, I started noticing that I was having trouble hearing what telemarketers and customer service reps were saying on the phone. Since I didn’t have trouble in most other telephone conversations, I thought the problem had to do with low sound quality of call center telephone equipment. Nevertheless, I decided to ask my primary care practitioner about getting my hearing checked (something last done when I was in elementary school). As a person over 65, I regularly get unsolicited mailings for free hearing tests from local hearing aid retailers, but I was wary that they would be trying to sell me something I didn’t need. (Sort of like getting financial planning advice from an annuity salesman on commission.) My primary care nurse practitioner said she would refer me to a local audiologist for a hearing test.
After a six-month delay when the referral somehow got lost, I had the hearing test a few weeks ago. I suppose I was expecting to be told that I had some age-related hearing loss, that I should have my hearing checked annually, and that I would probably need hearing aids at some point. Instead I learned that I have what is called sensorineural hearing loss, with mild hearing loss at particular frequencies in one ear and moderate hearing loss at those same frequencies in the other ear. In this type of hearing loss, the sound makes it through fine to the inner ear, but then doesn’t get transmitted properly to the brain. It is not reversible and is usually “progressive.” (In the world of medical double-speak, “progressive” means that it will continue to get worse – not the lay person’s idea of “progress”).
The good news is that this type of hearing loss can be helped by hearing aids, but it was a bit of a shock to have the audiologist recommend that I begin to use them right away – even though my hearing loss is not causing me much difficulty in my daily life. The audiologist explained that research shows a slower progression of hearing loss for those who begin using hearing aids earlier rather than later. And since the average rate of hearing loss from this type of problem is 10 decibels per year (which is a lot), I am motivated to do what I can to slow that progression down. I was further persuaded by a well-designed study of almost 2000 older adults which found that hearing loss predicted memory loss and cognitive declines, but with some evidence that using hearing aids might reduce the relationship.
I was fitted with my new hearing aids a week ago and am now in the shake-down period of learning how to use them and getting my brain used to hearing better again. When I drove home wearing them for the first time, I had trouble concentrating on my driving because I found the loudness of road noise and my directional signals so distracting. Quickly, though, my brain started appropriately de-emphasizing those sounds. After a week of wearing the hearing aids, I am noticing that many sounds that seemed too loud to me in the first days no longer do. I will see the audiologist again next week and every two weeks for the next two months as she slowly turns on and teaches me how to use additional features of the hearing aids (which are basically miniature computers) and increases the strength of my hearing correction. At some point, I’ll even get a music program that will make it easier to continue choral singing (by preventing the hearing aids from misreading some musical notes as feedback and distorting them).
I initially experienced the news of my progressive hearing loss as a blow to my ego; it made me feel weak and as though I were on a downhill slide. In the first few days of doing research to learn about what I’m dealing with, I discovered that sensorineural hearing loss can be a side-effect of one of the chemotherapy drugs I was treated with almost twenty years ago. Although this turned out not to be the cause in my case, the possibility turned my thinking around. After all, those drugs saved my life, and I would much rather be seventy years old with some hearing loss than dead of cancer in my fifties! I’m not usually a fan of “survivor” metaphors in cancer, but this realization made me feel strong and powerful rather than weak and deteriorating. Now, a week into wearing hearing aids, they no longer seem like a big deal to me. Instead, I am experiencing them pretty much the same way I do wearing glasses to correct my vision.