Debunking eight myths about hearing loss

man testing hearing

Thirty years ago, few people could have told you what an audiologist is…or does…but today, things are different. Most of us know that an audiologist is a person who tests hearing and fits hearing aids. But beyond that, our knowledge of hearing and hearing loss is sometimes distorted, outdated, or just plain wrong. So, let’s take a look at some of the most common misconceptions and sort out the truth.

MYTH: “I don’t have to worry about my hearing until I’m older….”

REALITY: While it’s true that age is the strongest predictor of hearing loss among adults, hearing loss can strike at any age. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 2-3 out of every 1000 children born have a detectable hearing loss. About 15% of teenagers (12-19) have measurable hearing loss, and this number may likely be under-reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 5.2 million children and teens (ages 6–19) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to loud noise. Overall, approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing.

MYTH: “I would know if I had hearing loss.”

REALITY: While hearing loss will become more noticeable as the problem worsens, the changes often occur slowly over many years. You may not be aware of how much poorer your hearing has become. At first, it may be difficult to hear in a noisy restaurant or coffee bar or at parties. You may find yourself continually turning up the TV or radio. After a while, you wonder why everyone mumbles when speaking to you, and friends and family may point out how you’re missing out on conversations. You probably do better when you’re speaking face-to-face with someone because the background noise is lower and you may be unconsciously compensating by lipreading. If you (or the people in your life) think you may have a hearing loss, it’s time to visit a hearing specialist to get your hearing checked.

MYTH: “I can just take a pill or have an operation to cure my hearing loss.”

REALITY: The most common causes of hearing loss in adults are permanent changes to the inner ear that cannot be corrected with medications or surgery. An ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT) or an audiologist can provide you with a diagnosis for your hearing loss and discuss your options for dealing with it.

MYTH: “Noise is just part of my job and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

REALITY: Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, affecting approximately 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69. Yes, you may have to work in a noisy environment, but that’s no excuse for not protecting your hearing, regardless of your age or existing hearing loss. I’ve spoken to too many people who have told me that hearing loss is a natural thing that accompanies their work or hobby. Still no excuse! You should always protect your ears from exposure to dangerous noise, even if you already have hearing loss. Regular exposure to harmful noise may (dare I say will) worsen your existing hearing, and there are many options for protecting yourself. [See my blog post from last month.]

MYTH: “I should do fine with just one hearing aid.”

REALITY: When I first started fitting hearing instruments 30 years ago, it was nearly impossible to convince clients to consider wearing two hearing aids. They assumed that if they could hear a little better in one ear, that was good enough. But our brains don’t work that way. To function normally requires relatively equal input from both ears. I used to share with clients a list of reasons why two hearing aids are better than one. That list included such benefits as: 1) you don’t need to set the volume as high for two hearing aids because your brain will add sound levels from the two ears together, 2) you can restore your ability to tell where sounds are coming from (sound localization), 3) you can understand speech better in environments where there’s a lot of background noise, and so on. Even with one normal hearing ear (such as with unilateral hearing loss or single-sided deafness), you would still need help with your hearing. Without help, listening requires more work and you will miss sounds coming from the side of your poorer ear.

MYTH: “My hearing loss is my problem and no one else’s business.”

REALITY: Many people with hearing loss may not realize how their hearing problem can make life difficult for those around them. It’s not unusual for loved ones to feel anger and frustration when trying to communicate with someone who has trouble hearing and who chooses not to seek treatment. Interestingly, many older men who had refused to own their hearing loss in the past have come to me saying, “You’ve got to help me. I want to hear my grandchildren.” Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right motivation. Living alone with untreated hearing loss is an unnecessary hardship that can lead to social isolation, depression, and a host of other physical and psychological issues. Remember that your spouse, family members, friends, and coworkers want to communicate and connect with you. No one will think less of you for doing the right thing in seeking help for your hearing loss—if not for yourself, then for the people who care about you.

MYTH: “Hearing aids are ugly and too loud, and they will tell the world I have a hearing loss.”

REALITY: Oh my! If this is you, it’s time to come out from under that rock and see what you’ve been missing. Most hearing instruments today are nearly invisible. And even if yours can be seen, well, everyone else these days is walking around with stuff hanging out of their ears, so, who will know or even care? While amplification will never restore normal hearing, the technology today has never been better and can do things only dreamed of just a few years ago. Hearing aids can now respond quickly to soft and loud sounds, making hearing much easier. In fact, many hearing devices no longer need a volume control. Hearing aids can provide multiple programs for all sorts of listening conditions and many can be selected automatically. Left and right hearing aids can now communicate with one another to zoom in on the sound source that you want to hear and tune out the surrounding noises. You can listen to music, your phone, and your TV, all piped directly to your hearing aids. So, visit your audiologist and find out how different hearing instruments are these days.

MYTH: “My family doctor will tell me if I need help with my hearing.”

REALITY: Unless you’re being given a special physical for a new job or the military, it is unlikely your annual visit to your doctor includes a hearing test. While your doctor probably looks in your ears, he or she can’t see the microscopic structures inside the inner ear that, if damaged, are the cause of most cases of hearing loss. As a result, he or she may not suspect that anything is wrong. As with other health issues, your doctor relies on you to share your concerns about your hearing. Doing so may be the only way your doctor will know that you are having problems. It is likely your doctor will recommend that you see an audiologist, or, in some cases, an ear specialist (ENT or otologist). If you have concerns about your hearing, tell your physician and get started doing something about it. You’ll be glad you did!

Have you heard other statements about hearing and hearing loss and are wondering what’s myth and what’s reality? If so, feel free to share what you’ve heard or read in the comments section and we’ll discuss them.

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