Hearing Loss Signs

6 Early Warning Signs of Hearing Loss
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Read my lips: 36 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss -- and many are in denial about it. Only a fifth of those who would benefit from help for hearing trouble get it, according to the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

"Hearing loss is an occupational hazard of getting older," says Richard M. Rosenfeld, chief of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City. By "older" he means, well, any of us. Sound exposure -- to rock concerts, loud workplaces, power tools, iPods -- adds up over time, so it's possible to begin losing some hearing in early adulthood. Smoking and chronic diseases (including circulatory ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension) can change blood supply to the ear, causing damage. Certain "ototoxic" medications, from aspirin and some antibiotics to quinine and chemotherapy drugs, can worsen hearing, too.

Damage tends to be so gradual that you might not notice. By ages 45 to 65, about a fifth of adults have some hearing loss, as do almost half of all 75-year-olds, says the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Here are six early warning signs of hearing loss:

Warning sign: Irritation that women and kids don't "speak up" enough

Higher-pitched sounds are among the first to go unheard, Rosenfeld says. That's because they're picked up by the most external part of the cochlea, the cavity of the inner ear where little hair cells pick up sound vibrations and convert them to nerve impulses that the brain recognizes as sounds. This external cochlea happens to be the most vulnerable to damage by chronic noise or health problems.

Women and children can be harder for someone with hearing problems to understand because they tend to have higher-pitched voices than men. "Many people brush off this change for a long time before realizing it's a hearing problem," Rosenfeld says. "It doesn't suddenly jump out and bite you."

Related sign: Trouble hearing other high-pitched sounds. These can include the cymbals or flute in music, babies crying, squeaks, and birdsong.

Warning sign: Not being sure where a sound is coming from

When someone starts talking, people with perfect hearing have an almost intuitive sense of where the speaker is in the room. Out in nature, a sharp-eared listener can easily tell where a bird or other noise is located. But for those with hearing loss, this ability to localize sounds is impaired. The person spends time looking around for visual cues to get a sense of where the sound or voice is coming from.

Related sign: Craning your neck to see where a speaker or sound is located. Interestingly, hearing loss can affect one ear more than another -- so you get a different signal from each side of your head. This makes localizing sounds more challenging, depending on where you and the sound are positioned.

Warning sign: Being asked to turn down the TV

Do you tend to set the TV louder than other people want it? Is controlling the volume a contact sport in your house? Amping it up is one of the most common warning signs of hearing loss, says audiology director Stephanie Lockhart of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

When we set the volume control to where it's comfortable for us, we have little idea how that sounds relative to others' ears. But if one viewer has good hearing and the other doesn't, the contrast is readily apparent to the person who hears fine.

Related sign: Playing your MP3 player so loudly that others say they can hear it through your headphones. "If a person a few feet away from you can hear your music, you're either a person who really enjoys music or one who is having trouble hearing." Rosenfeld says. (And those in the former group are destined for the latter anyway, Rosenfeld adds: "MP3 devices are the most effective way to induce hearing loss that you could devise.")

Warning sign: Complaints from relatives about having to repeat themselves to you

One of the earliest signs of ear trouble comes from your mouth. Someone with difficulty hearing often begs for repetition or clarifications: "What did you say?" "Huh?" "What??" And if you don't notice this trait, the relatives and good friends you see every day do.

Your companions, in turn, may say things to you like, "I'm tired of repeating myself to you." "You don't seem to know what's going on the way you used to." "Why don't you pay attention?" Or they may just come out and say it: "You're going deaf!" "You can't hear!"

Spouses of those with hearing loss often become "human hearing aids," having to interpret and repeat everything that goes on. As you can imagine, they grow frustrated over time. A 2004 study at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing found that spousal hearing loss increased the likelihood of poorer physical, psychological, and social well-being in partners. Wives of men with hearing loss bore the biggest burden.

Related sign: Mishearing what was said and saying the wrong thing in response -- which can make you look loopy or inattentive and further frustrate your companions or embarrass you.

Warning sign: Leaning in closer to hear your companion in a restaurant or at a party

Say you're at a lovely table, looking forward to nice evening with a friend, but then you can't hear your tablemate over the clinking of glasses and silverware, the piped-in music, and the murmurs of other diners. It's frustrating "“ and, often, the problem isn't the environment. It may be you.

Background noise makes it more difficult to separate the signal you want to hear from the distractions. If your hearing isn't 100 percent, Rosenfeld says, "You begin to appreciate a quiet room, or an amplifier like a microphone."

Related sign: Needing to pay attention more closely than before in a conversation with two or more other people. Having even more voices to attend to adds to the challenge. You may find yourself looking more intently at each speaker, trying to read lips or interpret body language. In general, it takes more energy to consciously focus than to be the passive, less attentive listener you once were.

Warning sign: Avoiding favorite activities or places

People who have trouble hearing often find their world grows smaller as they grow more sensitive to the frustration or embarrassment of not being able to follow conversations and enjoy themselves. Without necessarily identifying hearing problems as the cause, they simply withdraw. Self-esteem can wilt.

"Avoiding certain environments because you can't hear well is a common warning sign of hearing loss," Lockhart says.

Related sign: Depression. There's a growing link between hearing loss and depression, a condition that shares the warning sign of increased social withdrawal. As many as 60 percent of those with hearing loss also have symptoms of depression, according to a 2008 report by Australia Hearing. "Hearing loss can lead to isolation and other emotional conditions that can affect both qualify of life and mental health," says Sergei Kochkin, executive director of the Better Hearing Institute.

"People who can't see are usually quick to go to an eye doctor and get glasses, but for some reason we accept hearing loss and have a stigma about saying, 'I need help,'" Rosenfeld says. Yet hearing aids have evolved "incredibly" in the past 10 to 15 years, he says. "They're basically programmed exactly to your pattern of hearing, and they're inconspicuous and lightweight." An exam by a primary physician can rule out other causes for hearing loss, such as ear infection, the jaw disorder TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), or a foreign object lodged in the ear.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 1 year, said...

The ability to deal with this devastating disability in infants and adults gets more difficult without the proper advanced tools and treatment. It's great that testing on infants, suspected of hearing loss, is an ongoing process. The ABR and the OAE testing methods are so important in regards to an infant's growth and how he or she adapts. If heredity comes into play, then there's not to much the audiologist can do, but base its findings on this conclusion. As a child with this disability, grows up through the years, he will be labeled and treated as being different. Society has a way of being 'cruel'. I, too, have put together a site touching on this same subject. If you have a wordpress account, please comment on my site. http://babydosign.com Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

about 3 years, said...

Thanks Paula. This is really helpful for determining whether you're experiencing hearing loss. Here's another good resource if you have more questions about symptoms http://bit.ly/Basics_T

almost 5 years, said...

When I was a baby they made a hearing test and every other baby passed but me, my whole family has passed the test but me so thank you for posting this article now I know the symptoms

over 5 years, said...

I am deaf in my right ear - always have been. I want to be aware of what may happen when my hearing lessens in my left.

over 5 years, said...

LOL! One more item I can show to hubby (42 years married) to explain pleasantly ,from MY end, what I go thru w/ him and the TV. We have had some major arguments about how I mumble and speak softly , while his Miracle Ear sits in its box. He doesn't wear it beacause of the background noise is to loud.

over 5 years, said...

Sad but many of us cannot afford the hearing aides at 3k; insurance does not cover any portion; however, I know of one person who doesn't work, on welfare (very capable of working) and obtained her hearing aids at a very low cost...I have hearing loss and the cost is what stops me. Our medical care system is still......???????

over 5 years, said...

Too many upbeat noises when so-called younger & the like, fortunately not mu kettle of fish, but one can see it sometimes in others. Not easy to handle if you really do find it out, surely!

over 5 years, said...

Trying to get a partner to be checked out.

over 5 years, said...

A male in my 82nd year, and with increasing hearing loss in recent years, I recognized each one of your listed symptoms existing in me. You really have this subject beautifully covered. Congratulations! I'm having a VA (Veterans) hearing/auditory testing appointment tomorrow morning. Hearing Aid on the way!

over 5 years, said...

Susan Adams: "7 tips to help you get heard" is a link to another article.

over 5 years, said...

Thank you for posting this! I will pass it on to my friends to try to encourage them to get their hearing tested and get the equipment they need!

over 5 years, said...

for some of us hearing aids don't help. even the more high end ones will only give me a small benefit. My brain can't decipher the filtered information from the hearing aids any better than without them. They call it a 60% recognition loss. Go figure. Someday they will invent a device to bypass the ear and go straight to the nervous system. Maybe then I will be able to enjoy music again.

over 5 years, said...

Its unfortunate that hearing aids are so pricey. my insurance does not cover same and I don't have that kind of cash since i was laid off over a year ago. i know illegal immigrants have received hearing aids for very affordable costs, how I do not understand.

over 5 years, said...

I think I have that problem.

over 5 years, said...

Aspirin does not cause permanent hearing loss"¦Only temporary hearing loss and even then one must take over 16 tablets per day. For those with a severe hearing loss aspirin will not cause additional hearing loss. At one time patients with arthritis were told to determine the amount of aspirin they should take by increasing the dose of aspirin until they noticed a "ringing" in the ears and then to cut back one tablet per day or until the ringing stopped. The ringing indicated a temporary hearing loss. Now we have blood tests to determine the amount a patient should take.

over 5 years, said...

My hearing is fine, as tested. However I wonder at various neighbours parties, how they can put up with the noise levels. And in cars, with big boom sounds, I wonder at their future hearing problems. Obviously they don't care at this stage, but the taxpayers will eventually pay for their damaged ears. I hate them.

over 5 years, said...

Article ends with "7 Tips to Help You to Get Heard." But it's not followed by anything, let alone tips. Where are the tips?

over 5 years, said...

Recently I had what I thought was a ear blockage from wax. The Dr advised me that my ear was clear and I had an inner ear infection and prescribed antibiotics. After two doses of antibiotics, i.e about 14 days worth, the problem still exists. i think I have an infection from swimming in a Hydro pool, not wearing ear plugs. My Podiatrist of all people advised me that, Hydro pools are notorious for ear infections. So please be warned. Some 6 years ago I suffered Cellulitis on my Right leg, and this was also put down to a small cut between my toes, and using a Hydro pool. I am a Type 2 Diabetic, so always beware of these conditions.

over 5 years, said...

I always have the volume up louder than my husband, & he always asks me to turn it down. But then I can't hear, like the TV. Or radio in the car. Also I can't hear some visitors when they speak to me that I have to always ask them; "what did you say?" Even kids that seems to be soft speaking. I hate to have to always ask what they are saying more than once. I even have ringing in the ears. I am almost 76 years old, so I know this can contribute to my loss of hearing. But it stress's me when I have a hard time communicating with everyone. I can't afford the new hearing aids either. So can you comment on this situation?

over 5 years, said...

Dear Lorraines: I also have tinnitus and have had it for years. It finally did give me hearing loss as it got so loud and the follicles in my ear were damaged. After a while I did adjust to it but I know just how you feel. You will have it forever. My mother had it and I have had it now for 20 years. There is presently no cure. Listening to music helps. An IPod with soothing music, not loud but restful like the music played when you get a massage is helpful. Just keep your mind busy. I work, even though I am a senior, and that is the best medicine as quiet makes the sound louder and mine is not crickets but sounds like the screeching of railroad tracks, it is that loud at this point. Just keep busy and music and the TV when there are no people around.