Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Protect Your Hearing Or It Will Cost You (A Cautionary Tale)

My mother, who is in her 80s, has been progressively losing her hearing over the last 10 years. It’s gotten really bad over the last 3 years. Despite my constant prodding, she’s refused to admit she had a problem, instead blaming people for not talking loud enough, or the TV being too quiet, to name a few examples.

But, within the last two months, she’s developed a loud hum and buzz in her ears, which she attributed to the furnace, the refrigerator – well, anything but her own ears. I knew that it was tinnitus but my mother would not listen to reason. She even had her furnace fan replaced – despite the fact that her furnace was only two years old – as she was convinced that it was the fan that was making the buzzing noise. (Let’s not even go into the issue that the furnace repair guy just went ahead and replaced it even though he KNEW it wasn’t a problem). She insisted that her doctor never felt her hearing was a problem. Even though she sees him every 6 months and has done so for years, either she’s never complained to him in the past or he is incompetent (or both).   After her last doctor appointment where he did make sure her ears were clean – and when it didn’t make the humming noise go away – she finally admitted to me that  she had a problem.

The good news is I got her in for a hearing exam. The bad news is she has significant hearing loss. The really bad news is that the hearing aids will cost almost $5,000. Yes, you read that right - $5,000. These are digital hearing aids and she was able to test them in the office and the improvement was amazing. While I am sure it will take some time to get used to used to hearing things again, I am sure that it will improve her life immensely.

I learned something new in this process – hearing loss is a serious thing and should not be ignored. When the ear can’t transmit all the sounds it should be hearing to the brain, the brain actually can “forget” those sounds, and those sounds likely can never come back. (It’s called auditory deprivation.) By my mother waiting so long to do anything about her hearing problem, even with hearing aids she may never regain all hearing.

I also learned that correcting a hearing problem can be costly. While the technology has greatly improved over the years, there is a high cost associated with it. Even the low end hearing aids are expensive. They are also not covered by Medicare and most insurances don’t pay for them (or only pay a tiny part of the cost). Most people need them as they age, and that usually coincides with a time that most people are living on a retirement income.

Many people don’t think twice about their hearing – it’s just something that is there and as it usually diminishes gradually with age, the loss may not be noticeable at first. But it is something that requires serious thought NOW, while a person is young. Here’s my sage advice:

1. Think twice before you stick those headphones/ear buds on or in your ears. This is amplified sound that is going straight into your ear canal and it often louder than you would listen to music normally. Nothing can damage your hearing faster than loud music blaring in your ears. Learn to turn down the volume.

2. When using loud equipment (such as a lawnmower, leaf blower, chain saw, etc.) be sure to wear ear protection. (Eye protection is also a must but that’s another story.) You may not think the sound is too loud, but believe me your ears can and will be damaged. Even hair blow dryers can be too loud and earplugs can help minimize that noise as well.

3. Don’t wait to have your hearing checked. If a friend or family member remarks to you that they think you have a problem, don’t ignore them. Get your hearing tested immediately; many hearing aid companies will do it for free.

4. Plan for the expense as you age. All that money you’re spending on the latest iPods and iPhones pales in comparison to the cost of a pair of hearing aids that you’ll likely need a lot earlier in life because your using ear buds to blast loud music into your ears. Yes, it’s nice to have the newest shiniest technology of the day, but you’ll wish you had some of that money as you age.

Don’t take your hearing for granted. If you do, it will cost you more ways than one – your ability to hear AND in your wallet!

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