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Clinical Corner

Your Hearing Is Your Lifeline to the World

Dr. Donica Porter, Director of Audiology at BIDMC

By Dr. Donica Porter
Director of Audiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Baby Boomers have for years been the trendsetters driving fashion design, auto design and technological advances. Today's Boomers in their 50s are at the peak of their careers, in their 60s are starting new companies and in their 70s creating new relationships and formulating new goals directed at fun, relaxation, and retirement. It seems as if no one is standing still!

Preventive medicine is the byword in healthcare and we have become proactive instead of reactive. We are treating our bodies proactively with exercise programs, choosing healthy diets and watching our weight so that we can continue to work because we love it and because the current financial pressures demand it.

What does hearing have to do with it all?

Communication defines our humanity and is at the base of all our human activity. Surprisingly, our ears and hearing are our lifeline to rest of the world. Our ears are connected to the body we are trying so hard to keep healthy.

Face it, as we grow older, those ears are growing older with the rest of us. Interestingly, how we hear and what we hear affects our cognition: our ability to think, process, and understand thoughts that are related to us as we speak and interact with others.

What do the numbers say?

A recent study identifies that 80% of individuals over the age of 75 will have some degree of hearing loss that will require personal instrumentation. Because we all live much longer and remain very active, the noisy world surrounding us has a greater opportunity to impact our ability to hear.

What happens when we have a reduced ability to hear?

Listening environments that are complex offer us several things to hear and decipher simultaneously. Even a mild hearing loss will affect our ability to organize sound. When we are young, "sorting" through multiple conversations and cross talk seems easy. When hearing loss is present, frequency, loudness and temporal distortions occur, having the effect of smearing the fine distinctions between one sound and another. When those distinctions are blurred, the brain has to work much harder to organize what it is trying to hear.

What causes the frustration we experience in these complex environments?

Because we cannot use all the auditory cues, we are forced to rely on visual cues and attempts to predict what a person is saying. We need to work harder to get enough information to understand what is being said. The greater the hearing loss, the less information is present for us to decipher. We can reach a point where even danger signals are no longer audible.

What do we need to do to assure healthy ears and hearing?

A good evaluation is a great start. Doctors of audiology are the diagnosticians educated to evaluate the hearing and balance systems. Like optometrists who evaluate vision, audiologists are prepared to diagnose the auditory system, determining where in the system hearing loss may exist. Because the organ of balance, the vestibular system, is a part of the auditory system, audiologists are responsible for evaluating dizziness and balance problems as well.

How do I choose the place to get evaluated?

Sometimes your primary care physician will refer you to a doctor of Audiology who is in your health care network. Sometimes you might make the choice yourself. Always check the credentials of the person you have chosen. Responding to a "free" hearing test or a coupon purporting a half price sale on hearing aids may not be your best choice. Remember that personal amplification devices are very complex today. As a consumer, you have no idea what is in the circuit you buy. Therefore, it is extremely important that you have a knowledgeable and trustworthy professional providing you good diagnostic services as well as complete follow up care.

So, what if we find out we have some hearing loss?

We can take advantage of the dramatic advances in technology that have taken place just in the past year. This has been a year for amazing breakthroughs in new instrument technology that now offer spatial analysis of sound, identification of speech in noise, digital feedback control and integration of bluetooth technology, to name just a few of the features available in digital hearing instruments. Packaged to be nearly invisible, these digital chips work automatically to provide exquisite listening comfort.

How is this different from the hearing aids my mother didn't like to wear?

Most of us know that the world has gone "DIGITAL." We might not know exactly what that means or how it works, but we do know that the music we listen to certainly doesn't sound like that LP record we used to play, our television picture is very sharp and clear, and we have cell phones and MP3 players and the list goes on. Our new instruments make use of all that technology enabling audiologists to develop very specific programming for our patients on computer chips within the hearing aid that actually responds to the loudness levels and a variety of sounds that enter the instrument. The result is clear, natural, comfortable sound in a very cosmetically pleasing package that is virtually unnoticed when worn.

What does the research show?

  1. A recent study demonstrates that Baby Boomers who address their hearing needs earn more because they do not present a picture of inability to perform in their jobs.
  2. Those who address their hearing needs are less likely to appear cognitively impaired, a problem that may be seen as dementia.
  3. Exercise increases the amount of oxygen fed to our ears and our brain, increasing our understanding of the thoughts and words we hear.
  4. Hearing well decreases symptoms of depression caused by poor communication with friends and loved ones.
  5. Good healthcare keeps diseases like diabetes and hypertension from increasing adverse affects on the hearing system.

So stay in the game, have fun, dance, listen to music, and challenge yourself with activities that make you think. Stay healthy. Find a doctor of audiology who can open doors to all the new technologies available today. Life is enriched when we can communicate stress-free and remain at the top of our game.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2010

Contact Information

Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery 
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
110 Francis Street, 6-E
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-632-7500
Fax: 617-632-7501