More than half of people aged between 60 and 80 are likely to have hearing difficulties. A hearing aid could change their lives, says Rowena Walsh.
Frank Keogh did not want to get a hearing aid. He was afraid that it would make him look old. But now, just several weeks after having one fitted, he says that he can’t do without it.
This is a sentiment that audiologist Leona Kane is very familiar with. “Some people feel that hearing loss is purely age-related and is giving in to old age. But not getting help makes life more difficult,” she says.
Leona says that the statistics prove untreated hearing loss can lead to isolation and depression, both of which are linked to dementia. She refers to research by Frank Lin at the John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, who says that aside from a higher risk of dementia, those with hearing problems lose their cognitive skills about 35% faster than others.
“If you have a hearing loss and you’re hearing part of the word, your brain is then filling in,” says Leona, who is secretary of the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists. “You are using up brain activity to listen that you really should be able to use for problem-solving.”
She refers to the ‘listening effort’ people with hearing loss need for every conversation.
Dolores Madden of the society says that research says more than half the population aged between 60 and 80 are likely to have measurable hearing loss.
For Leona, the key indicator that someone is experiencing hearing loss is if they feel that people are mumbling. You can hear someone talk but you can’t understand them. Other indicators are getting physically closer to someone while talking to them and giving an answer to a question that wasn’t actually asked.
She says when this happens, people start to feel insecure and self-conscious, which can prevent them from engaging in conversation. “It’s very isolating. I think it’s one of the saddest and loneliest problems because people don’t understand hearing loss.
“I do a random word test and family members can be shocked when they hear the responses that the person is giving. One of the words may be fish, but they might say dish, or it could be gate and they say date. They’re picking up a sound, and then the brain is filling in a word, but not the right word.”
Frank, who is aged 82, says he was prompted to visit Leona’s practice by family members. “I was annoying them. If there was any kind of background noise, when you were talking to me, I didn’t know what you were saying and you’d have to be looking at me and standing in front of me, I was half lip-reading.”
The grandfather of seven could still hear but says it was like he was listening to an old-fashioned radio where too much sound was coming through the speakers. “You can hear the sound, but you can’t make out the actual words.”
His articulation index scores were 16% in one ear and 9% in the other.
Frank’s life has changed dramatically since he got his hearing aid. He says he couldn’t have taken a phone call six weeks ago. “I can hear things like the rustling of keys or the indicators in the car flicking.
“You can hear too much at times. It’s like you’re in a disco when you get the hearing aid first, but once you become adjusted to it, your brain calms everything down. It takes weeks.”
His treatment plan started in November — the average waiting time for a hearing aid is one week — when he was given 80% of the prescription he required. Leona says when reintroducing sounds to the brain, it is better to do so at a comfortable level, which encourages auditory retraining, and then build up the prescription. By the next month, he had reached the target prescription of 100%.
“Hearing is starting to be seen as something that you should have tested,” says Leona. “Deep down, people know if they have a little bit of a problem, they just may not want to admit it to themselves.”
For Frank, putting in his hearing aid every day is one more job to do but one that’s definitely worth it.