There appears to be a hierarchy of old age diseases and afflictions rated on the “cool” scale. The higher the ranking, the more talk and exchange of information there is and, I would argue, the more attention is paid.
Cataracts are highly rated. Organ transplants are way up there, definitely cool to talk about. So is bypass surgery. Even prostate exams and colonoscopies, while lower on the scale than – oh, say, dental implants, are discussed these days, although dentures are not.
Nor are hearing aids.
But they should be discussed – at least among ourselves - because age-related hearing loss is as common as dirt, afflicting more than 55 percent of people older than 70 and an even higher percentage after age 85.
One remedy for some kinds of hearing loss is cochlear implants which rank rather high on the cool scale. But they are not widely used. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in the United States only about 42,600 adults and 28,400 children have received them as of December 2010.
So. Hearing aids are what we have to treat hearing loss, but only about one in seven people who could benefit use them. Why is that, I wondered.
Audiologists and other experts point to several reasons. Some people, because hearing loss is usually gradual, don't notice their hearing is fading. Others refuse treatment out of vanity – that “thing” in your ear” - and for many elders, there remains a stigma attached to hearing aids from our youth.
Two things may be changing that. The vanity reason could be declining now that just about everyone walks around with wired and wireless devices plugged into their ears for telephoning and music listening. So who is know what's a phone and what's a hearing aid.
And, the stigma problem should fade if the long list of aging musicians with hearing loss – often due to too much loud music over long careers – continue to speak up. Ozzy Osbourne, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton are among them. George Martin (producer for The Beatles and others) was forced to retire due to hearing loss and Phil Collins gave up touring for the same reason.
This video, although uploaded last year involves at lease one celebrity who is now dead, does have the right messages about hearing aids:
A couple of other reasons elders may not have their hearing checked or get hearing aids are price and reputation. Although there are a few exceptions, generally Medicare does not cover routine hearing exams or hearing aids of any type. And hearing aids are expensive. According to Consumer Reports:
”Our shoppers purchased two pairs of hearing aids each, or 48 aids in all, ranging from $1,800 to $6,800 per pair, including professional fitting and follow-up services, in the New York City metropolitan area.”
The reputation of hearing aid providers is weak because prices vary widely and the industry is not standardized. There is a fly-by-night feel to some of them.
Always, of course, you should begin with your physician and that Consumer Reports story, which is excellent, has a good section on how to choose a provider.
When we were young, it was taboo to talk out loud about cancer. “Did you hear? John's got cancer” was more likely to be whispered one to one. Of course, that is no longer so.
Untreated hearing loss reduces people's ability to engage with the world around them. That can lead to social isolation, already a problem for some elders, and that leads to depression, illness and even early death. There are studies, too, suggest hearing loss can lead to more falls.
When we talk about things openly, they become more acceptable. Hearing aids should be as acceptable as eye glasses.
Tomorrow, Elder Taboos Part 2: Incontinence
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Tarzana: An Eternal Menage a Trois