Hearing Clearly: The Importance of Regular Hearing Checkups

In the work I do with aging adults, there is nothing more energetically draining than to have to shout back and forth in order for each of us to be understood. So, imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I see people who have been labeled as having “dementia” make a miraculous recovery when their hearing is improved or restored.

Sadly, many aging adults may be needlessly experiencing subtle cognitive decline and wrongly attribute it to Alzheimer’s, when it is really hearing loss. I mention this because the issue can turn out to be transformational when the person is fitted with hearing aids! The world opens up. One of my patients told me, “It was like waking up in the Land of Oz!”

How Do You Know You Have Hearing Loss?

Our brains do a lot of work in transforming “noise” into its different components: language, background, music, warning. The architecture is amazing. Sound waves enter the ears, are muffled, modulated, and ultimately transformed into neurotransmitters that trigger different parts of our brain specializing in language, emotion, movement (balance), and meaning.

When there are problems with any of these components, your brain works extra hard to compensate. Long-term exposure to noise, stress, and/or illness can alter the brain’s ability to compensate, which results in complete shutting down.

Because most hearing loss is gradual, many folks don’t realize they are having problems. It’s all too easy to dismiss the occasional missed word or phrase, or not pay attention to the volume level on the TV. And, then there is denial.

My Story

My hearing loss started in my 40s. I realized I kept turning the sound up on my TV and increasing the volume in the car radio when I was driving. I also had to ask folks to repeat themselves… a lot! Truth be told, I ignored all these classic signs of hearing loss, because I was in denial.

Then I had a bout of vertigo. After several visits to a variety of doctors, presumptive attempts at positional adjustment and a short trial of prednisone, an MRI was finally ordered. The tech was really excited. In his excitement (and against protocol!), he said, “You’ve got an acoustic neuroma!” I had no idea what this meant, but I was to learn really quickly.

Acoustic neuromas are very rare benign brain tumors. This one was growing on my left acoustic nerve and literally squeezing it to death like some gnarly anaconda so I couldn’t hear.

I ended up having to undergo brain surgery to have it removed, and now I wear hearing aids in both my ears. And, because of this experience, I am an eager and loud (yes, loud!) advocate for early screening for hearing loss.

Where Do I Get Screened?

Your primary care provider can do a general screening at your annual wellness visit, and may refer you to an Eye, Ear, and Nose (ENT) specialist. Or, you can Google “Hearing Screening” and find someone locally. If you want to have a more comprehensive evaluation done, you need to go see an audiologist. But first, you need to know the difference between an audiologist and getting tested at a hearing center.

Consider seeing an audiologist for more comprehensive testing. While both will offer to fit you for hearing aids, the audiologist typically will:

assess hearing problems and balance disorders (although some may specialize in one area more than the other);

diagnose the causes of hearing and balance problems;

offer more specialized tests than your PCP, ENT consultant or hearing aid specialist;

offer additional services such as working with Cochlear implants and providing rehab for balance disorders;

be qualified to treat rarer types of hearing loss and can help in more complex cases, such as those with additional needs.

Costs

Insurance coverage for hearing aids in the U.S. has never been available. This is not true for other countries, however. In the U.K., hearing aids are “loaned” to folks. In Canada, costs are subsidized. Hopefully, as the Boomer-wave begins to demand coverage in the U.S., these essential healthcare adjuncts will become a covered benefit.

The hearing exam (with an audiologist) is NOT a covered benefit under traditional Medicare, but may be under some Medicare Advantage plans. If you have neither, out-of-pocket costs vary, but are usually somewhere around $150 to $200 dollars for the exam.

If the exam results suggest you would benefit from having hearing aids, you may dig in your heals because of the cost. We’ve always complained about the cost, but remember – you get what you pay for. The “miracle” hearing aids that cost $39.00 don’t really deliver.

Technology continues to improve these devices, and prices are coming down. Friends of mine have recently gone to Costco and gotten hearing aids with all the bells and whistles (which they can now hear!) for under $2,000. If you are cost conscious, then plan on saving up for the hearing aids of your dreams. You are worth it!

Also read, MEDICARE AND HEARING AIDS: HOW NOT TO BREAK THE BANK.

What to Do in the Meantime

Here are several practical steps to take in caring for your hearing. Most are low cost. Some may be covered by your insurance plan.

Get a Hearing Test

If you are 65 or older, make sure your primary care provider checks your hearing during your annual wellness visit. This visit is covered under Medicare.

Learn About the Technology

There are all kinds of hearing aids to choose from: Bluetooth, sound canceling, environment adjusting, battery and self-charging. Try them out. See which ones work for you!

Be Open to Trying Hearing Aids

Let me tell you how much my life has improved now that I am wearing hearing aids. While they are not perfect, they allow me to stay present in a conversation, participate in social activities, and keep my brain attuned to what is going on around me. I can hear the birds sing. I don’t have to have my TV volume set on “high.”

And, most important of all, I am no longer exhausted trying to figure out what people are saying! I would be lost without them, and like too many folks, would probably withdraw into my own world and lose out on so many beautiful things. Don’t let that happen to you!

If you’re looking into aging well, download Dr. Flett’s free e-book, 5 Keys to Aging Better & Aging Well.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Did you have your primary care physician check your hearing during your last visit? Have you noticed any differences in your hearing abilities?

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