Slow and unnoticeable, hearing loss can creep up on you. But this common condition actually shows itself in subtle ways.
by Featured Provider Brooke Welch on Thursday, June 16, 2022
You might remember this from when you were a kid. You enter a booth, put on some headphones and wait quietly until that first sound.
You raise your right hand.
You raise your left. The routine repeats as tones loud and soft play in each ear.
That hearing test is standard for all ages. As you get older, your hearing gradually fades and those faint beeps are harder and harder to hear.
“It’s something that is natural to happen over time. For some people, that gradual decline starts in their 30s. For others, it starts in their 60s and 70s. We see it all across the board,” says Brooke Welch, AuD, an audiologist at The Iowa Clinic. “When we do a hearing test, 20 decibels is what we consider normal hearing. That’s the standard for everybody — kids, young adults and older adults.”
You don’t have to wait for a routine hearing test to tell you if you have hearing loss. You — or those around you — will likely notice the signs long before you take any test.
What? Can you repeat that?
“One of the big signs is if you find yourself asking others to repeat themselves during conversation,” Welch says. “Or you may say ‘What?’ or ‘Huh?’ a lot when you talk to people.”
Alternatively, you might hear the words coming out but fail to fully understand what’s being said. That’s because your hearing is muffled and you’re not actually hearing as much of the conversation as you think.
Where’s that noise coming from?
One sign of hearing difficulties is when you can hear a sound but you can’t quite tell where it’s coming from.
When you have hearing loss, your ability to localize sound can be affected. Localization is important as it contributes to a more natural and comfortable listening experience. It is also important for safety (awareness of oncoming traffic, falling objects, etc).
Come a little closer.
You may compensate for your hearing difficulties by moving closer to the sound source to fully hear and comprehend. You might lean forward, strain your neck or stand closer to people, Welch says. If one ear provides better hearing than the other, you may turn your head or body so that your good ear points in the direction of the sound.
There’s a ringing in your ears.
“A lot of people with hearing loss will have some sort of noise in their ear. It might be ringing, buzzing, humming or crickets chirping,” Welch says. “The general word for it is ‘tinnitus’ but it just means there’s a sensation of noise in your ears.”
Along with different sounds, tinnitus can have a low or high pitch and affect both or just one ear. It can be constant or intermittent. Sometimes, the noise is so loud that it causes difficulty concentrating or hearing the real-world sounds that surround you.
The numbers never lie.
One easy-to-spot sign of hearing loss is displayed daily on the screens in front of you. What volume do you set on your TV, speakers, radio, headphones or other audio sources? If that number gets higher and higher over the years, your hearing is gradually getting worse.
Or maybe the volume number ticks up slow enough that you don’t notice the difference. But family and friends think the volume you find comfortable is way too loud for their ears.
A sign of hearing loss is a sign you should see the doctor.
“If you’ve had any of these signs pop up and affect your daily life, it’s a good idea to set up a consultation with an audiologist and get a good look at it. Even if there’s no or mild hearing loss, at the very least, we have a good baseline for your hearing,” Welch says.
In addition to that standard tone test you experienced as a child, your comprehensive hearing exam will include a look inside your ears for wax buildup, drainage, anatomy issues or infection. You’ll also take a different hearing test that involves word recognition, which evaluates the clarity function of your ears.
Hearing loss does not always mean hearing aids.
Once the results are in, your audiologist assesses the level of hearing loss.. Most patients with moderate to severe hearing loss benefit from hearing aids. For mild cases, that’s not always necessary. You may be able to adjust your behaviors and habits to get by without a hearing aid, or wait until the hearing difficulties progress enough that you feel like you’re ready to get one.
There are other options, known as assistive listening devices, that provide more situational hearing help.
“While hearing aids are the most common treatment option, there are gadgets that can be helpful for milder issues,” Welch says. “You could buy these without a prescription. They help enhance that area that you’re having difficulty with.”
Welch recommends a number of devices that patients find pretty useful for their needs:
- TV ears – A listening headset that gives you better volume and sound quality from your television speakers.
- Amplified telephones – Specially-designed phones that make it easier to hear speech more clearly.
- Captioned telephones – Phones with screens that visually display the conversation so you can read and follow along.
- Assisted Listening System– Devices at churches, musicals, plays and other venues that are tuned into the sound system to assist the hearing impaired.
If your primary source of frustration is conversations, a hearing aid is still your best option.
“Age-related hearing loss is very common. The research shows that approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss. And half of those over 75 have some kind of hearing issue,” Welch says.
“This normal, gradual hearing decline happens at its own rate, no matter what you do. So it’s important to watch for the signs. At The Iowa Clinic, our audiologists work hand-in-hand with the ENT physicians to diagnose hearing issues. Whether it’s treatment with us — with hearing aids and assistive devices — or something more surgical that an ENT can take care of, we’re here to figure out solutions for your hearing difficulties.”