Do I Hear What You Hear?


February 22, 2018 by Jean

earA 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.

hearing aid

18 thoughts on “Do I Hear What You Hear?

  1. Diana Studer says:

    I was born half deaf. Recently joined a Single Sided Deafness group on FB. Has been interesting to share experiences and discover the many new options available.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, One of the things i’m finding very interesting is how the brain fills in missing information as hearing (and vision) deteriorate so that we don’t notice the difference. I scored 100% on the word recognition part of the hearing test, but I was aware of a couple of times when I had a one- or two-second delay between hearing the word and recognizing it — probably the time for my brain to fill in the missing information. I imagine the brain processes are different for congenital deafness. Does single-sided deafness create challenges for identifying the direction sound is coming from (as blindness in one eye makes depth perception more difficult)?

      • Diana Studer says:

        I discovered they call it the deafie pirouette.
        I can’t tell if that noise is … the kettle boiling … or a low flying aircraft.
        Which neighbor is mowing the lawn, which door must I close against the noise??

        Also – the brain works extremely hard to compensate for one deaf ear. Making time in a noisy environment exhausting.

  2. Dan DeNicola says:

    And, with Bluetooth, you can use them to listen to podcasts and answer your cell phone! 🙂

    • Jean says:

      LOL, Dan, the audiologist mentioned the Bluetooth capabilities of the hearing aids. But when I explained that I just got my first cell phone a few weeks ago and only turn it on if I need to make a call while I’m out in the car, she said, “Okay, we don’t need to bother about that then.”

  3. Jean R. says:

    It is a blow to the ego, isn’t it, and it shouldn’t be. We associate hearing loss with growing old so it’s just one more thing to deal with. I’ve had mine for five years and I’m not good at following the rule about wearing them every day, even if I’m not going anyplace or being around people. Sometimes when I’m wearing them I’m shocked at how loud, for example, I pee. With your singing, I’ll bet you’ll benefit a lot. I’ve found one very handy benefit to wearing them: in movie theaters and noisy places I can just take out one aid and be perfectly happy.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I’ve always been one of those good student/overachiever types,so I have been wearing the hearing aids even more than the audiologist recommended (twice as much as the recommended 6-8 hours per day). I knew from learning to wear glasses for the first time in my forties that the more you can wear them the more quickly your brain adjusts. After less than two weeks, I no longer have any sense of things being “too loud,” and I’m quickly getting used to the feel of the speakers in my ear canals. (I was also able to turn down the volume on my radios and television.) I put the hearing aids on in the morning right after I put on my glasses and take them off at night just before I take off my glasses.

  4. Sue McPhee says:

    Yes, I have had several friends, clients and family members with sensorineural hearing loss. And kudos to you for getting the hearing aids. I have many clients whose family members refuse to wear them (because they feel it is a sign that they are old) and it is very frustrating for these clients to make themselves heard by their loved ones. The ones with the hearing loss sit at family gatherings and withdraw from conversations because they simply can’t hear what is being said. It is sad. Hearing loss is not relegated to people over a certain age (whatever that is). Young people have hearing loss and folks are born with hearing loss as well. Kudos to you for helping yourself by being ok with wearing them. And, by the way, I have always considered you a strong and powerful woman. You are and will be for a very long time. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Sue. It was tempting to put off the hearing aids because I wasn’t having any trouble with social functioning (and scored100% on the word recognition part of the hearing test). But I was very persuaded by the research evidence that wearing them now will slow down the rate of my hearing loss. And today’s microprocessor hearing aids are so tiny and discreet I don’t think anyone has even noticed that I’m wearing them.

      • Sue McPhee says:

        Wow! What kind are they? (Although much younger than I, I think Rick might be in line for hearing aids before I am.)

        • Jean says:

          AGX Oticon Mini-Rite. (I couldn’t figure out how to insert an image into this comment, so I added it to the bottom of the original post above.)

  5. I am glad you shared your story Jean as many of us will be dealing with similar issues as we age. It is hard not to feel like we are on the slippery slope of aging but your perspective is so refreshing. I wish my mom would have used hearing aids as she has needed them for years and why she probably has speech and memory issues. But at 85 she still does not want to be old. I can’t fight her resolve and wish to continue to feel young.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, When I was first out of college, I worked for a couple of years as a social worker with the welfare department. One of my first clients was an elderly man who was waiting for the welfare department to approve him for hearing aids (a long, involved process). When I met him as part of the approval process, he was withdrawn and depressed. When I went back to check on him after he was finally fitted with his new hearing aids, I met an entirely different person — fun-loving and outgoing, presumably the person he had been before his hearing loss made it so difficult for him to be socially engaged. It made a big impression on me. I’m trying to actively resist the ageist assumption that being young is better than being old — especially when that assumption leads us to make personally destructive choices.

  6. Dr Sock says:

    Being able to hear well is an important factor in social intergration, and helps to reduce feelings of loneliness. Recent research shows that being engaged socially helps to promote longevity. As you mentioned, hearing is also a factor in remaining cognitively sharp, and may help to slow the progression of dementia in the early stages. For all these reasons, I find it hard to understand why people refuse to use hearing aids (assuming that they can afford them). We don’t stigmatize glasses in the same way, even though determination of vision also is common as we age.

    So good for you for getting hearing aids, and for writing about the experience here!


    • Jean says:

      Jude, I wonder if we stigmatize hearing aids precisely because they are associated with getting old. I think the average person finds they need glasses by middle age (I was in my early forties), whereas hearing aids typically come later. It is also shocking to me, given how prevalent hearing loss is and how serious its consequences, that hearing tests are not part of routine medicine. And, while glasses are covered (at least in part) by many health insurance plans in the US, hearing aids are not.

      • Sue McPhee says:

        Yes, I have always found it shocking that at a time in people’s lives when they are often needing such services as hearing, vision and dental, Medicare (especially) as well as other insurances don’t cover. Many go without because of this. Rick’s parents are a good example. They will both be 89 this year. We bought his mother a wheelchair a couple of years ago as this was not going to be covered either and they have been ever so grateful.

  7. Dr Sock says:

    Correction: Deterioration of vision

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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