Hearing loss a treatable problem

HANCOCK – If you just can’t hear as well as you used to, but consider it a minor problem, you might just want to think again.

“You lose your hearing, you lose relationships,” said Portage Health audiologist Melissa Collard.

“I don’t know how many times people have said, ‘You saved my marriage,'” added her colleague Nancy Reed. “It affects your job, how successful you are at work… a lot of people fake it, and it’s stressful.”

When children’s hearing problems go untreated, their educations and lives can be derailed when they’re just getting started.

“We’ve had kids that have been held back a grade just because they can’t catch all the information,” Collard said.

For children, though, there is a safety net in place that identifies most hearing issues before too much damage is done.

It begins with all babies being screened for hearing issues at birth. At Portage, if the screening detects issues, babies are sent to the audiologists before ever leaving the hospital.

“We had one that was caught as a newborn, who we fit with a hearing aid at eight weeks and now has a cochlear implant,” Reed said. “If we catch it early enough, it doesn’t have a lot of impact on speech and development.”

In-school screenings for students catch most later-developing problems, particularly congenital, or inherited, hearing loss.

Still, other types of hearing loss, like middle ear issues caused by infections, can slip though the screenings, Collard said. She said if parents notice children have a hard time hearing them, tend to turn the TV way up when watching, don’t notice people coming into the room, or if teachers say they can’t or don’t pay attention, they should schedule an appointment with an audiologist. At Portage, that would be done in a soundproof booth for accurate data.

For adults, the safety net of required screenings doesn’t exist, but adults do have the experience to better recognize their own hearing issues.

According to Reed, the biggest road block between both working-age adults and seniors seeking help for hearing loss remains stubbornness.

“There are still people that resist, because they equate it with growing old,” Reed said.

But for most adults, clues from family and friends who wonder why they keep asking for repetitions or turning the TV up so loud, along with embarrassment, eventually overcome reluctance.

“By the time they come to our office, they’re usually ready for help,” Collard said.

She said Portage offers patients trials of their hearing aides to decide whether they’re worth the cost, as well as counseling on how best to compensate without a hearing aid if that’s the patient’s choice.

Often this means helping patients understand their own hearing loss, and how it affects communication.

For example, “If it’s noise-induced hearing loss they lose their hearing in the high register,” Reed said. “They hear men better than women and children.”

She said people that do choose to try a hearing aid will likely be pleased. Modern hearing aids don’t just amplify sound indiscriminately, they’re designed and programmed for specific hearing problems and ranges of hearing loss.

Also, “many of the new aids are so tiny they fit in the ear canal,” Reed said. Many include Bluetooth and similar technology to connect to cell phones, TVs and other devices, helping users bypass background noise.

“We have a patient who hadn’t heard a TV in years,” Reed said of one patient who switched to a hearing aid with wireless technology. With the new device, “it was like the angels sang.”

Portage also provides ongoing service for patients’ hearing aids to make sure they remain effective, beginning six months and one year after purchase, and continuing annually thereafter.

Unfortunately, a large segment of the Portage audiologists’ business is preventable – noise-induced hearing loss.

Collard and Reed said common local causes are running chainsaws or shooting guns without hearing protection, or spending too much time with ear buds in and iPods turned to maximum volume.

“We see kids as young as twelve with noise-induced hearing loss,” Reed said. “They think they’re invincible.”

Reed said people often don’t realize how loud guns are because the noise only lasts a short time. But just a few shots can do permanent damage.

“Ten times is enough, and it adds up over time,” Collard said.