Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Recovered Sounds

I first began to notice hearing loss in my early to mid-50s when it became obvious that I could only hear some voices on the telephone if I held it to my right ear.  Then I noticed it again one day when I leaned against a pillow while watching a movie.

I went to an ear specialist a few years later but sooner than most.  On average, people wait ten years to be tested.

The test detected mild to moderate loss in one ear and mild to severe in the other depending on the range.  But because the loss was asymmetrical, the issue soon became whether any tumor could be detected.

Typically hearing loss is symmetrical.

I was so relieved when there turned out not to be a tumor that I didn’t do much about the hearing itself.  We inherit various anomalies.  For instance, while it doesn’t affect my eyesight, my optical nerves have an irregular shape.

During my annual check up this year, my primary care doctor suggested I have my hearing retested now that it has been six or seven years.

I did, and fortunately the audiologist had access to the previous test for comparison.  While there had been little change, this time she explained hearing aids to me.

I now have two fine tuned to the levels and range of loss in each ear.  What made the decision easier was learning that researchers now know that when you can’t hear, your brain’s auditory cortex atrophies from lack of exercise.

Apparently your brain “stores” sounds and noises for up to three years but then begins to shed them.  Just as at birth, every human on earth is born with recognition of sounds in every language, but we begin to shed them based on what we hear our parents use when speaking.

That may also be why some people who learn to speak English very well can still be difficult to understand, especially when they speak very fast.  It is because they are still using sounds and cadence common in their mother tongue but unfamiliar in English.

When your hearing is amplified with aids not only do you hear sounds you had been gradually missing, but this then also improves perception and memory because that part of your brain is being exercised again.

A study published this year found that in 2,000 test subjects, all of whom were over age 70, those with hearing loss also developed cognitive impairment much earlier than those without hearing loss.

But this is one area where even under the Affordable Care Act, the health system still discriminates.  Hearing aids are rarely covered by insurance.

I’m only 65, but why wait?  I don’t feel old and I don’t think old.  An AARP survey published this year of people who ranged between 40 and 90 years old found, on average, that both men and women agree that “old” is age 70 for a man.

Amusingly, men thought women were “old” at 68 but women thought they were not “old” until age 75.  People in their 40s thought a person was old at 63, but by their 50s the threshold rose to 68 and in their 60s it had increased to 73.

In each age group those who felt that growing older was easier than they thought, that they had more energy than they expected for their age and that physical health did not hold them back were all highest for people in their 60s and 70s.

Anyway, the hearing aids I have now are each calibrated to the range and degree of loss in each ear.  I’d prefer it that you don’t stare in my ears the next time you see me (smile.)

Mine are the kind that fit over the back of the ear.  They are the color of my hair which I have always worn back and down over the tops of my ears.

They even have Bluetooth so that without disturbing others I can watch television or listen to streaming music or take a phone call in a noisy room.  Some movie and performing arts theaters are set up so I could pick up the sound through my aids if I chose.

DPAC where I live offers headphones, but I’ve never had trouble hearing there.  I haven’t been to a performance since being outfitted with aids, though.  The facility is looking at technological trends and plans to incorporate what makes sense in a few years.

I have a gizmo I carry in my pocket that, if needed, allows me to turn the hearing aids up or down, but I’ve never needed to.  I can also mute background noise if it is making it hard to converse with people next to me.

I just realized that I can even mute everything if I don’t like what someone is saying or “reinventing the wheel.”  (smile.)

For several reasons it took a day or two to get used to them.  The essential tremor I’ve had since childhood made learning to put them in fun.

It doesn’t take long at all to get used to having the buds in your ears but I am often startled at being able to hear something again and to accurately detect the direction from which the sound came.

On cross country road trips I sometimes found the GPS voice giving directions wasn’t loud enough or the volume on the radio hadn’t seemed to adjust automatically.

Now I know that the voice giving directions also shifts to the speaker closest to my left where I have the most hearing loss.  I also realize now that my English bulldog, Mugsy, pants very loudly.

I have also had to learn to adjust my whisper because I hear things differently now.

Life it good.  Always has been and now I am living even more of it.

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