You Can Say That Again

What to know about age-related hearing loss. 

If you think your parent is having trouble hearing, there’s a good chance you’re right. 

Age-related hearing loss is common — and it’s not something you want to dismiss just because mom insists her hearing is fine.

Here’s why:

Mom may not even be aware that her hearing isn’t what it used to be. Age-related hearing loss happens so slowly that many people don’t notice it’s happening.

Untreated hearing loss opens the door for social isolation. Dad may be smiling and nodding while you talk, but if he can’t hear well enough to understand you, he’s not connecting. That’s a real problem, because feeling connected is an essential part of healthy aging.

Worse, dad’s “something’s off” behavior is easy to interpret as a signal that he’s — for a lack of a better term — “starting to lose it.” 

People may think he’s not capable of the same level of conversation, so they stick to small talk. And if dad also seems more agitated, they start backing away. The shift is often subtle and self-perpetuating. 

Hearing loss is bad for your parent’s health. Researchers continue to connect untreated hearing loss to greater risks for depression, dementia, and falling.

And that risk ratchets up quickly. One study, for example, found that even mild hearing loss of just 25 decibels triples the risk of falling. Another study found that dementia risk doubled with mild hearing loss, and moderate hearing loss tripled it

The risk of missing warning sounds also makes hearing loss a major safety concern. Especially when mom is crossing the street or dad is behind the wheel.

Early intervention matters. The longer age-related hearing loss goes untreated, the worse it gets. And too many of us wait too long: On average, people wait four years after they become aware of a hearing problem before they get help

That’s a lot of missed conversations and connections — and a lot of time for follow-on health risks to gain momentum. 

Hearing aids have come a long way. Technology and design have evolved to the point where many of today’s devices are hard to see unless you know to look.

They may also be a lot more affordable. In 2022, the FDA approved OTC hearing aids, which do not require an exam or fitting. These devices are intended for mild-to-moderate hearing loss and are much less expensive than traditional “prescription” hearing aids from an audiologist.

What You Can Do

Watch for early warning signs. Common red flags include having to repeat yourself during phone or face-to-face conversations; mom can’t follow conversations in noisy restaurants or at family events; and having to stand in front of the TV and wave your arms to get dad to turn down the volume.

Say something. The gradual nature of age-related hearing loss means you’re likely to notice changes before your parent does. You may also be dealing with a parent who doesn’t want to acknowledge they have a problem. That’s a real possibility — and why you’ll want to broach this topic carefully. Here are some great tips on how to do it

Start with mom’s primary care doc. I know it’s a hassle. I know it’s easier and less expensive to try an OTC hearing aid first.

Start with a medical evaluation anyway. Because your parent’s hearing loss might also be related to other conditions. Maybe it’s as simple as excessive ear wax. But it could also be a viral infection. Or an emerging cognitive problem. 

Does your parent have age-related hearing loss? Or is there something else going on? You won’t know until you get a medical assessment. 

Important: Don’t wait for mom’s next annual exam. Given all the urgent conditions that PCPs treating older adults are dealing with, hearing loss is often overlooked. Better: Set up an appointment where mom and the doctor know that hearing is the primary concern.

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Thanks for caring,

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