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Your Health
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Helping Seniors Cope with Age-Related Hearing Loss

Dr. John McCaffery says hearing aids can improve quality of life, and modern devices are more discreet

People go about life understanding the world through five senses: sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. When the capabilities of one of those senses are diminished or lost, alienation can occur. Hearing loss, a common occurrence for seniors, can be mitigated with the help of an otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose and throat doctor.

Dr. John McCaffery, an ENT with ENT Associates of Santa Barbara, says many aging people are in denial about their hearing loss and what they’re missing during day-to-day conversations.

“It is the people trying to communicate with them who notice it,” McCaffery said. “It’s a natural part of aging. As seniors experience it and loss is progressing, they avoid situations with loud noises that tend to bother them, like restaurants, movies or church.”

When an adult child notices that an aging parent is encountering difficulties with hearing, McCaffery encourages the family to go to an ENT physician together.

“Some of the older people have difficulty explaining the types of situations they’ve been in when they have had problems, whereas an adult child will remember various circumstances when their parent had difficulties,” McCaffery said. “Also, the adult child is probably someone who is frequently speaking with the senior patient and will be able to gauge what kinds of assistance they need specific to their hearing loss pattern.”

Upon seeking hearing assistance, a physician will check the patient’s ears to ensure the hearing trouble is not due to another problem, such as ear war or a sinus infection. Then, an audiologist will determine how a patient responds to different tones at different frequencies, and will measure how ear bones that transfer energy into the ear canal and inner ear move.

“Hearing is interesting because it’s not just how loud a noise has to be for the inner ear to use it for communication,” McCaffery said. “The inner ear also has to discriminate those sounds, especially speech sounds, to make sense of anything.”

He said most people wait seven to 10 years until they acknowledge that they need to use a hearing aid.

“Over those years they have probably become less independent. They can’t take their car to the shop because they can’t hear the mechanic, and they rely on family members to make decisions for them,” McCaffery said. “What usually motivates seniors to finally purchase a hearing aid is some kind of family event they actually want to hear at, like a graduation or wedding. ENT Associates usually gets a spike of patients interested in hearing aids towards the end of November because they realize they won’t be able to hear their grandchildren during the holiday season.”

He said the best thing for adult children to do in encouraging their parents to get a hearing aid is to try to help them understand that the device is crucial for communication.

“If they can hear, they can continue to live an active and independent life and participate in daily activities,” McCaffery said. “If the brain is deprived of a certain sense, in this case hearing, the brain loses the ability to process that sound. It’s the adage, ‘Use it or lose it.’ The more you try to stimulate the brain with sounds, the more you retain its potential to hear those sounds and understand what those sounds are.”

Modern hearing aids are not the bulky, ugly devices aids many people associate with “getting old.” New hearing aid models have an open fit with a more natural feel in which the ear canal is not precluded. Open fit types are best for mild hearing loss and middle to high frequency hearing loss.

“When people come into our office in the relatively early stages of hearing loss, they usually use an open fit hearing aid,” McCaffery said.

Hearing aids are now equipped with a digital signal processing system, a computer that transfers sound so that when it is directed to your inner ear, some noise is canceled or suppressed.

“These aids are able to filter out some of the background noise for patients and make sounds closer to the patient more perceptible,” McCaffery said. “They also help capture the sound in front of the patient better.”

Hearing aid patients can use an external device, such as a remote control, and select the program they want depending on the situation. There are different settings for different activities, such as going to movies or restaurants, or watching television at home, depending on the type and location of sound that needs to be amplified. Some older patients have arthritis or other physical limitations, so McCaffery ensures that the hearing aid they receive is a type they can manipulate themselves.

McCaffery emphasizes that hearing loss is a natural part of aging and that hearing aids are simply a device to improve the quality of life.

“Some patients get depressed when they lose their hearing. They could also be dealing with arthritis, losing their eyesight or feeling the effects of a decrease in cognitive function,” he said. “Just as eyeglasses help you see and understand the environment, hearing helps you be more aware of your environment and what is going on in the world around you.

“My advice for seniors needing a hearing aid is to get a smaller one if they can manipulate it themselves. Open fit aids can be skin colored and you can’t see them very much. It’s important to be able to function well in life.”

For more information about hearing aids or to learn more about ENT Associates of Santa Barbara, click here or call 805.964.6926.

Noozhawk contributing writer Taylor Orr can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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