Talking About Hearing Loss With Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Listen

The one question I am asked more than any other is: “How do I talk to my spouse about hearing loss?”

Older couple enjoying a cup of tea together Every time I try to bring the subject up, they say, the spouse brushes it off. “I can hear fine,” is the impatient reply. Or, “It’s because you mumble.” Or, “It’s too loud in this restaurant.” Or —and this is the most frustrating — “Maybe I do, but it doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, it bothers me,” you may be tempted to reply. Not a good idea.

What might work is to turn the discussion around. “Honey,” you say, “have you noticed that I’m missing things people say? I think I might be losing some of my hearing.”

Honey may look at you suspiciously.

“There’s a free clinic at the university where they do hearing tests,” you go on. “I’m going to go down there. There are so many new devices to help you hear better these days.”

“Hearing aids,” Honey says.

“Yeah, hearing aids. But also these things that work like hearing aids but cost about a tenth as much. I hear they’re great for mild hearing loss. I’m missing a lot of what they’re saying on TV, and also when we eat out I can never hear the specials.”

“Like I said,” Honey says. “Restaurants are too loud.”

“Anyway,” you continue. “It might just be earwax and it would be good to get that out.”

No response.

“I read the other day that you can use a smartphone as a hearing aid. I can turn my iPhone into a microphone — I read about it on Giz Mag. There’s another thing you can use with an IPhone or an Android that looks great. I read about it in the Times. You’ve gotten me hooked on this tech stuff.”

No response.

“There’s also this cool device that works kind of like a hearing aid but it looks just like a Bluetooth — called theSoundhawk. In fact there are all sorts of things that aren’t hearing aids but sound pretty great.”

Honey: “Hmft.”

“I’m going to go down to the clinic tomorrow and maybe stop off at the Apple store and check out the new stuff. Can you drive me, in case I can’t park?”

Honey agrees to drive you. You find a parking spot. No point in sitting in the hot car, Honey thinks. Might as well have the hearing test. I’m here anyway.

If you can get Honey to the hearing test, that’s a big first step. If the visit results in a halfway solution like thesmartphone app or the Soundhawk, that’s not a bad second step.

Turns out you have some hearing loss, too. The audiologist suggests the Bean, since you don’t really want to look like a Wall Street trader wearing the Soundhawk. It’s invisible. Then, maybe down the road, hearing aids.

Honey goes for the Soundhawk. The power look. The average wait between discovering you need a hearing aid and actually getting one is seven years, so get started now.

Photo: annebaek/iStock

Katherine Bouton is the author of Shouting Won’t Help, a memoir of adult-onset hearing loss. She has had progressive bilateral hearing loss since she was 30 and blogs about healthy living — and healthy aging — at Hear Better With Hearing Loss. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

This post first appeared on the AARP website: Healthy Hearing, by Katherine Bouton. 

Loud enough to cause an earthquake. So what’s it doing to your hearing?

If you’re lucky enough to attend this coming Sunday’s NFL playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, bring your noise-canceling headphones. It might also be a good idea to tie down your valuables before you leave home. Seismographers from the University of Washington have found that the crowd noise at CenturyLink Field is so loud that it generates earthquakes. Minor ones, so far, but this is a big game.

CenturyLink Field holds the record for the loudest outdoor sports stadium, thanks to its famed 12th Man (crowd noise). The decibel level at the record-breaking game, in December 2013, was 137.6 decibels. That’s quite a bit louder than a jackhammer and just below the noise of a jet engine at fairly close range. It’s also well into the range where it can cause immediate hearing damage. (You can read more about this game and other football hearing issues here.)

Seattle Seahawks fans

Researchers from the University of Washington installed two seismometers at CenturyLink Field several years ago. In Seattle’s earthquake prone vicinity, it was big news in 2011 when running back Marshall Lynch made a 67-yard touchdown, setting off seismic activity now fondly known as the BeastQuake. Last Sunday’s playoff between the Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers also set off seismic activity.

The Seattle Times interviewed Steve Malone, professor emeritus at The University of Washington Seismologic Laboratory, after last Sunday’s game. Since TV has a 10 second lag time, he told the reporter, the seismologists were able to see the crowd reaction, in terms of seismic activity, before the play was even shown on TV. It would be good if CenturyLink Field also attracted the interest of audiologists. Maybe they could measure how many Seahawks season ticket holders have hearing loss.

One of the few people at CenturyLink Field not in danger of hearing damage is fullback Derrick Coleman, who is deaf. This gives him a distinct advantage over his teammates, because he can lip read the quarterback’s plays. Even though he can’t hear the crowd noise, he can feel it. He’s a human seismometer

Photo: AP/Elaine Thomson

Katherine Bouton is the author of Shouting Won’t Help, a memoir of adult-onset hearing loss. She has had progressive bilateral hearing loss since she was 30 and blogs about healthy living — and healthy aging — at Hear Better With Hearing Loss. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

This post first appeared on Healthy Hearing, AARP website, 1/15/15

Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy

What’s With the Purple?

Why purple?

I like it, for starters.

But it’s also part of the color scheme of the logo of the Hearing Loss of Association of America. I’m a fan of HLAA, and a member, and a member of the board. I’m grateful to it for advocacy and support on the national and local levels. And for the many friends I’ve made through the organization.

For more information, and for the location of chapters, go to Hearing Loss Association of America.imgres

You might also want to look at the websites for The Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA), The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), AG Bell, and Gallaudet University. They all have useful information, local chapters, and many resources to offer to the deaf and hard of hearing.

Scientists Meet the Consumers

SCIENTISTS MEET THE CONSUMERS.

Yesterday I was the guest speaker at the 14th annual Forum on Hearing and Hearing Loss, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Department of Audiology and the Boston Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Sharon Kujawa, who originated the event and has organized it for 14 years, is an Associate Professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School, director of the Department of Audiology at Mass Eye and Ear, and Senior Researcher at the Eaton Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear. Her lab focuses on noise and age induced hearing loss, and is currently investigating how noise exposure alters the way ears and the auditory system age. By understanding the underlying mechanisms, the lab hopes to develop a drug that could result in treatment or prevention.

Specifically, the Kujawa lab is involved in a biomedical and engineering research partnership that is looking to develop an implanted drug delivery system that could help prevent hearing loss. Given to vulnerable populations — those exposed to unavoidable loud noise, for instance active-duty military, as well as those with a genetic predisposition to hearing loss  — the drug might help offset the effects of the noise exposure.

Dr. Kujawa spoke first. Her talk was a detailed discussion of what we now know about the causes of hearing loss, and about the  underlying systems. She also talked about the lab’s current work. Her talk covered a lot of technical material but it was crystal clear.

I spoke next, about hearing loss from a personal perspective, about the need to educate people about hearing loss, about the general misunderstanding of adult-onset hearing loss (most of us are not Deaf and we don’t use sign language). I also spoke about the need for reforms in Medicare and private insurance, which currently do not cover hearing aids or diagnostic hearing tests. I urged those in the audience to write to their congressional representative and ask for support for HR3150, which would overturn the statute that currently prohibits Medicare from reimbursing for hearing aids or diagnostic hearing tests.

HR 3150 would be an immensely important corrective to the existing policy. The consequences of untreated hearing loss, are enormous — not only personally but on a public health level as well. Untreated hearing loss is strongly associated with depression and isolation (both known risk factors for dementia), anxiety, paranoia, with a three-fold greater risk of falls — and an alarmingly greater correlation with the onset and severity of dementia.

This is a power-point talk that I frequently give to hearing loss groups as well as academic audiences. For a list of upcoming appearances, you can go to my website: katherinebouton.com and look under events. Most are open to the public, and most have multiple kinds of hearing accessibility. CART — simultaneous captioning on a screen on stage — is always available. Many venues are also looped, and sometimes there is an ASL intepreter.

Dr. Charles Liberman was the third speaker. Dr. Liberman is the Harold F. Schulknecht Professor of Otology and Laryngology and Vice Chair of Basic Research in that department, which is part of Harvard Medical School. He and Dr. Kujawa collaborate on much of their work. Dr. Liberman’s current research focuses on noise: “acoustic overexposure.” His talk was also highly technical but also very clear to his mostly lay audience. He discussed the ways the inner ear connects to the brain — through two kinds of sensory neurons and and two neuronal feedback systems — and how those pathways can be affected by noise exposure.

Neither Dr. Kujawa nor Dr. Liberman spoke down to the audience, and the audience members responded with their own detailed technical questions. People with hearing loss are often well versed in the science of hearing loss, and the Mass Eye and Ear annual forums bring cutting edge science to the lay public.

Mass Eye and Ear has made a commitment to sharing its research with the public. Does anyone know if such public forums exist at  other academic hearing centers? It’s a generous gesture from the scientific community to the population their research may eventually benefit.

Talking About Hearing Loss

Or not, which is more often the case. I didn’t talk about it for the first 30 years I had it, except as a joke, a distraction from the fact that I actually couldn’t hear what someone said to me. That’s okay. We all need to talk less about our various ailments and more about literature and politics and art and the Higgs boson.

But that doesn’t mean we should deny it, to ourselves or to others. Because if we do, that means we aren’t going to hear — or participate in — that conversation about the Higgs boson. (The Higgs is on my mind because I just saw “Particle Fever,” which I can safely say is probably the most fun and interesting and thought-provoking movie you’ll ever see about particle physics).

We also shouldn’t deny it, as a society, because if we do we’re going to end up — in the not so distant future — overwhelmed by a disproportionately large segment of our population who can’t hear, who can’t or won’t correct it, and who therefore can no longer be productive members of society.

So that’s the subject of this blog. Or the main subject anyway. If we talk about hearing loss, if we acknowledge it both personally and as a society, we normalize it. And it IS normal. Twenty percent of our population, from teenagers to nonagenarians has hearing loss. Teenagers themselves have hearing loss in astonishingly high numbers — 19% of them. Most of them don’t realize it, or don’t care, but by ignoring it they’re setting themselves up for hearing problems they won’t be able to ignore — at a much younger age than that should be happening.

My hearing loss is not normal. It began when I was 30. Nobody could figure out why I went from hearing perfectly one day to being practically deaf in one ear the next. They still couldn’t figure it out as I progressively lost almost all the hearing in the other ear as well. But what was normal was how I reacted to it: with jokes, with denial, with a refusal to get hearing aids. And then when it got really bad, when I couldn’t do my job or understand what anyone said to me most of the time, I also got seriously depressed. That’s normal too. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

It was only when I began to speak honestly about my hearing loss that I was able to overcome that depression, to find my life again.

I was good at denial. I fooled a lot of people for a lot of years. Most of them didn’t know know I had hearing loss. But (as I learned when I started being more open about it) they did think something was off. Was I going senile? Was I drunk? Burned out? Bored? How could any of these impressions be preferable to acknowledging a physical disability? A disability that can be treated, that should not be incompatible with a healthy productive life.

Once I acknowledged the severity of my hearing loss – to myself and to others – I began to learn to live with it. And the more open I was about it, the better I seemed to hear. The better I DID hear. In this blog I want to share some what I’ve learned about living well with hearing loss.

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For other information about me, go to katherinebouton.com. That site includes archives of the blog posts I’ve written over the past 18 months, as well as reviews of my book, “Shouting Won’t Help,” information about public appearances, and references to other sites and sources about hearing loss.