“What was that you said?”
We all know an elderly person with hearing problems, whether mild or severe, because hearing loss is a common condition that occurs naturally as a person ages.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that as many as 40-50 percent of adults over the age of 75 suffer from presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss. Additionally, the NIDCD estimates that 30-35 percent of adults between the ages of 65-75 suffer from presbycusis.
Baby boomers are the generation most affected by hearing loss today, and the number of presbycusis patients will likely only increase as the number of senior citizens rises. According to the Administration on Aging, 65-and-over population reached 39.6 million in 2009, or 12.9 percent of the population. By 2030, that number is projected to increase to 72.1 million people, or 19 percent. Declining birth rates, coupled with the aging baby boomers, contribute to this increase.
Even though hearing loss is frequently considered a natural step in the aging process, that hasn’t stopped researchers from investigating how to reverse the problem. New research on laboratory rats shows spending time in the dark, thereby limiting the rat’s sight, effectively sharpened their hearing. While this solution isn't plausible, the data suggests the brain is capable of adapting and improving on its own when necessary. This research could help develop an effective method of treating and potentially reversing hearing loss in the future.
Currently, hearing aids are the best option for individuals with presbycusis, allowing them to resume normal activities and able to hear many of the things they've been missing out on, such as birds chirping and the coos of a grandchild.
While presbycusis is oftentimes a natural occurrence, prevention can lessen the impact. Age-related hearing loss is most often caused by damage to hair sensors in the inner ear. Prolonged exposure to loud noises, like traffic or construction, are common factors in presbycusis. Protecting ears in adolescence could help reduce the severity of hearing loss later in life.
It might be difficult to interact with someone suffering from presbycusis, especially if their hearing loss is severe, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid conversations with them. A study at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden shows that senior citizens suffering from hearing loss become more withdrawn and less social as their condition progresses.
The researchers studied 400 individuals between the ages of 80-98 over the course of six years. During that time, despite no change in their physical or cognitive abilities, the patients became more introverted. The only change was in their hearing abilities.
The NIDCD offers tips for communicating with a loved one who has presbycusis, including turning off the TV or radio during conversations, facing the person while speaking in a well-lit area, adding clues to the topic of your conversation throughout your speech and switching to shorter, simpler sentences.
If you think you or a loved one may be developing a hearing condition like presbycusis, help them find an audiologist and help them get back to living their life!