When I was younger, I thought wearing glasses was the biggest humiliation I would have to suffer. Without glasses I can’t see the computer screen I’m sitting in front of, but glasses have a downside. In cold New England a walk from the chilly outside to toasty inside results in a thick layer of condensation that renders glasses wearers temporarily blind. In the summer, going from air conditioning to humidity does the same thing. Aquatic endeavors require a decision to either see what’s going on (my preference in a lake) or swim blind (my preference in the ocean. I believe if I don’t see the shark, it won’t see me).
I’ve made my peace with wearing glasses, but now I’m confronted by a problem many of my fellow baby boomers are also facing, hearing loss. Yes, we didn’t wear helmets when we biked/skied/played sports and we didn’t wear hearing protection when we shot guns, listened to our Walkmans at full blast, or spent time in noisy environments. Our youthful ignorance of the damage caused by loud noises has led to an explosion in the number of baby boomers with hearing loss.
The National Institute for Health reports that 18% of adults in the 45-64 year old category, have hearing loss. The percentage of Americans with hearing loss increases in the 65-74 year old group to 30%, and for adults over 75, a whopping 47% of them are struggling to hear.
Seems like a minor problem until you read the early studies that indicate adults with hearing loss are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing.
So why don’t we embrace hearing aids in an attempt to increase our thinking skills and ward off dementia (as well as not blowing out the volume controls on the TV)?
Maybe it’s because hearing aids are equated with old people and we’re a nation dedicated to never growing old. Not all of us can afford facelifts, botox, or tummy tucks, but we can dye our hair, buy anti-wrinkle cream, and pretend we can still hear.
And most people don’t know how much sound they’re missing. When I trialed hearing aids, I couldn’t believe what a noisy house I lived in. The refrigerator cycled on and off, the dryer had a strange squeak, and with the windows open I could hear my neighbor’s children playing outside. All sounds that hadn’t existed for me before the hearing aids.
I wanted to turn the volume down.
But without hearing aids I struggle to carry on a conversation in certain decibel ranges. I lean in closer and keep a semi smile on my face because I’m not sure if the correct response is to laugh or to cry. Most of the time I can piece together what’s being said through context, but once in a while I can’t. It’s embarrassing when someone asks me a question and I don’t understand enough words to even guess what they’re saying. It’s like suddenly I’m hearing a foreign language and my ears can’t process it.
As easy as it is to downplay hearing loss or make a joke about it, the sad truth is that it has a profound effect on quality of life and, it seems, the risk of dementia. Maybe instead of being fixated with the idea that wearing hearing aids makes us old, we should think about all of the sounds we miss without them. If it’s a choice between hearing my daughter whisper “I love you” as she leaves the house or looking and feeling old, I think I’m going to choose to hear.
There’s only a finite number of “I love you’s” we’re privileged to hear and I’d like to hear every single one of them.
- Where Is the Steve Jobs of Hearing Loss? (psychologytoday.com)
- Next NYC health campaign: too-loud earphones (bostonherald.com)
- Listening in on Able Planet’s new ‘personal sound amplifier’ (news.cnet.com)
- Innovative Theater Technology for the Physically Impaired (ktla.com)
- Are You Bullied Because of Your Hearing Loss? (lipreadingmom.com)