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"The longer you wait, the more difficult the adaptation to the hearing aid or whatever device you use," she says.
Exposure to loud noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, says Dan Shandy, a hearing instrument specialist at America's Best Center for Hearing Aids in Cape Girardeau. Always wear ear protection when you're around loud noises, and try to limit your exposure, as well -- no more than 90 minutes at 90 decibels, he says, or about the level of a motorcycle, large truck or lawnmower.
For some people, bad genes are to blame for hearing loss.
"You can inherit genes for hearing loss just as you can inherit genes for heart disease," says Dr. Linda Hurt, a doctor of audiology at Audiology Associates Balance and Hearing Center in Cape Girardeau.
Hearing loss occurs in all ages, but it does become more predominant as we grow older, adds Cooley.
"Some people are just more susceptible to hearing loss as they get older," she says. "But if we all live long enough and old enough, we'll all get gray hair and wrinkles and hearing loss. It just goes with the territory."
In addition to protecting the ears from loud noise, Cooley and Hurt recommend regular examination to assess your current hearing level and provide a baseline for future comparison.
During a hearing exam, Hurt has her clients wear headphones and listen for tones; they also discuss genetics and whether they've experienced any other problems, like dizziness or noises in the ear. If there is hearing loss, says Hurt, it's important to identify the cause of it because not all hearing loss can be helped by hearing aids. Some hearing loss is related to fluid in the ears, wax impaction, a hole in the eardrum or a tumor, for example, and must be addressed separately.
"If we find anything, we might go for another series tests in understanding speech and the ability to tolerate loud sounds," says Shandy, who also conducts tone tests. "With some people, if they can't hear quiet sounds, a lot of times they can't tolerate loud sounds, either."
If a hearing problem is left untreated, it will only get worse, he adds, and might affect speech over time.
The good news is that hearing aids have become more comfortable and advanced, say Shandy, Cooley and Hurt. Tiny, deep-insertion hearing aids fit completely in the ear canal, barely visible. Open-fit hearing aids use a thin wire tube to relay sound, resulting in a more comfortable fit and natural sound, says Shandy. And, like tiny computers, hearing aids can even be programmed to fit the degree of your hearing loss and automatically adjust to your likes and dislikes in different settings.
"There's no reaching up to fiddle with the volume controls. No one has to know you have a hearing aid," says Cooley.
She also urges those with hearing problems to use other devices available, like movie theater headphones or radio earbuds for outdoor events. Missouri residents with a documented hearing loss are also eligible to receive a free amplified telephone, she says.
WHAT IF IT'S NOT YOU?
It can be tough to admit to hearing loss -- many older adults view it as an assault to their independence, says Cooley. But in actuality, taking care of hearing is vital in order to remain independent as older adults, she says.
"Getting a person in to have a test and show the hearing loss is half the battle," says Hurt. If you notice that a friend or relative doesn't hear as well as he used to, point out how the change affects himself and others. Hearing loss makes it harder to communicate, leading to frustration on both sides, Hurt explains. Eventually, the person with hearing loss might choose to stay home alone rather than spend time with others, where the problem becomes more apparent.
Don't let yourself become an "organic hearing aid" for another person, adds Cooley. In other words, don't interpret or readjust your speaking to accommodate the person with the hearing loss. Instead, say something like, "Did you miss that?"
"You need to make them aware that they're not hearing everything," Cooley explains. "Being that organic hearing aid, or enabling them by repeating and adjusting so that they can hear, means they're not feeling their hearing loss. If they don't feel like there's a problem, they don't feel motivated to do something about it."