Ageing with attitude: Spread the word about hearing loss in old age

We have no qualms about age-related vision loss, but are slow to react when our ears fails us, despite the threat this poses to our safety and social lifes, writes Margaret Jennings.

YOU may have seen it, or something similar — four feisty-looking older women in their swimsuits sitting in a row, on deck chairs, sipping on their cocktails.

The first says: “It’s windy today.” 

The second replies: “No, it’s Thursday.” 

The next in row says: “So am I!” 

And the last holds out her glass saying: “Waiter, another round!”

Though the women look as if they are having a ball, the laugh is at their expense, as the ageist joke makes fun of their hard-of-hearing status.

It adds to the shame and vulnerability we can feel when our hearing begins to fails as we age, and many still deny that they have an issue. 

But this is beginning to change as we live longer and are more educated about our health and wellbeing, says Derek Lacey from Amplifon, who has been an audiologist in Ireland for 20 years.

“We actually start losing hearing from age 30 but we usually don’t recognise it until around age 55 and upwards,” says Lacey.

“It’s called age-related hearing loss because it is at that stage people realise they are not picking up what is being said — it’s not that they can’t hear, they can hear perfectly well, but there is no clarity. They come into my clinics and say ‘everybody is mumbling’.

“People don’t like to use the term ‘age- related’ but what it is, sensorineural hearing loss, or wear and tear, which works in two ways. 

"There are inner hair cells and outer hair cells and the outer hair cells are the first ones to be damaged. Usually, the inner hair cells give you base sounds and the outer hair cells give you treble. 

"The base gives you volume and the treble gives you clarity and it’s usually the clarity that’s the first to go.”

More than 70,000 people in Ireland suffer from a form of hearing loss and the biggest cause is age-related, with this figure rising to one in three among people aged 60 and over, according to Specsavers.

The website reveals that more than 40% of Irish people aged over 60 years are affected by hearing loss, having a major impact on their wellbeing and safety.

We are more tuned into age-related vision loss and quicker to get glasses, but there is an element of denial around hearing loss, which can progress slowly, though this is changing too. 

Lacey says that, compared to a decade ago, people are coming to him at a younger age, largely because they are more active and don’t want to miss out on what’s happening around them.

But some questions you should ask yourself are: Are you raising your TV louder than you used to? Do you find it difficult hearing in a small group such as in a coffee shop with background noise?

Quite often, you don’t notice yourself until someone points out your hearing difficulty to you, says 59-year-old Ita McSwiney from Ballintemple, Co Cork.

Although not an average example, since she has been wearing devices for 40 years due to a genetic sensorineural hearing difficulty, she says that, with age, her condition has worsened and she needs continual check-ups.

She points out the importance of attending a good audiologist who can continuously monitor your needs correctly with whatever appliance you are wearing. 

You can have the best appliance in the market, but it’s the skills of the audiologist, in programming them to your prescription, that is vital.

“The relationship with your audiologist is crucial and the aftercare is so important, in my experience,” she says. 

“If there are older people who don’t have significant hearing loss, leaving their hearing aids in their lockers unused, because they say ‘oh it’s too loud when I’m in a restaurant’, then that’s the audiologist not working properly with them because the technology can be programmed to do anything.”

Indeed, Derek Lacey warns against putting hearing aids in and out.

“The auditory process — amplification — takes time to rebuild and once the hairs are damaged there is no accountable regeneration that will give you back your natural hearing, so you are relying on the hearing device to aid the outer hair cells that are damaged and to protect the other hair cells, so if you do that piecemeal you are doing yourself more damage than good.”

The technology has vastly improved over the last decade and is updated daily, he says.

“For example, if you have an iPhone or iPad they can control the device,” he says. 

“You go into accessibility in your iPhone and scroll down to hearing aid and download the app from iTunes and you then can control your hearing system through that.”

Hearing aids are also very discreet. For those with mild to moderate loss, they are very small and go in the ear or behind the ear. 

“All manufacturers are now tuned into fact that they have to be tiny and matching the facial colour of the skin,” he adds.

Something those cocktail-swigging ladies would no doubt appreciate!

Getting on with it

Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old, Jane Miller, €7.88

Ageing with attitude: Spread the word about hearing loss in old age

This book seems to have been critically well received for the author’s thoughtful yet at times amusing perspective on ageing.

To get a taste of its tone, she tells the reader: “Who would not delight in the theatrical props of old age — the pills and sticks, the shrieking hearing aids and the tricks for countering the loss of names and threads and glasses? But that’s not all. 

"I have a fond hope that in old age there may be new kinds of time and of pleasure, perhaps even new kinds of vitality, and that, though we forget and muddle and fail to hear things, there may be moments when we truly understand what’s going on for the first time. But then I’ve always been a late developer.”

On the pulse

Checking your pulse for 30 seconds every morning could save you from having a stroke.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is sustained cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which currently affects up to 40,000 people over 50 in Ireland. 

It is common in people aged 60 and over — often appearing in those with underlying heart disease — and affects 10% of people over 75.

As part of an awareness campaign by the Mater Private National Arrhythmia Service cardiologist Dr John Keaney, warned AF is a serious condition leading to a number of health complications and is a factor in up to 30% of strokes in Ireland annually. 

Those aged 60 or over are high risk and should check their pulse every morning . A normal pulse is 60-100 regular beats per minute.

Ageing quote

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith."

— Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

Silver surfer

This woman learnt to swim at 75 


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