Hearing loss, and how it impacts the brain as we age, has been the focus of numerous studies. More recently, especially, as medical professionals’ (and the public’s) interest in dementia has increased.
One such study, titled “Hearing loss and the risk of dementia in later life,” was published just last June in an issue of Maturitas. In it, scientists from medical institutions across Australia analyzed a variety of studies — including one of their own — and discovered that hearing impairment in midlife is associated with a 50 percent higher risk of developing dementia. (See our video summarizing why scientists think hearing loss increases the risk of the cognitive decline.)
The good news? Another recent study found that hearing loss is one of nine dementia risk factors you can modify (by treating it at midlife) which can “contribute to prevention or delay of dementia.”
If you were ever looking for a reason to stop ignoring your hearing loss, these studies should be pretty persuasive.
If your birthday or wedding anniversary is in February, forgive me in advance for saying this — but there is little to look forward to this month. It’s after the holidays but before spring. And in many parts of the country, it may be the coldest month of the year.
Fortunately, it’s short.
Another saving grace? Valentines Day. February is a great month to focus on love, relationships and affairs of the heart — three things you would think have little to do with hearing or hearing loss. But you might be surprised to know they are very intertwined.
Hearing and communicating are key ingredients to strong and happy relationships. Survey after survey shows that people who treat their hearing loss acknowledge that getting hearing aids improved or had a positive effect on relationships with family and friends.
Social isolation — especially as we age — increases the risk of numerous mental and physical health challenges, including depression, heart disease, abnormal immune systems, and even dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Social isolation is also a growing epidemic which, according to the former Surgeon General of the United States, is associated with a “reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
One big reason people become socially isolated is because of hearing loss. Often, as hearing becomes challenging, people avoid social, business or transactional situations where interaction is key — and instead choose to withdraw and isolate themselves.
Our new Livio AI hearing aid was designed specifically to help. Not only is it our best sounding and best performing hearing aid ever to help people hear and engage better, it’s also the first wearable device that helps you track how socially active you are.
In short, yes, earwax can cause hearing loss. But it doesn’t occur as commonly as one might think. In fact, very few patients who are seen by hearing healthcare professionals have hearing loss that is literally due to excessive earwax (cerumen impaction).
More likely, the patient has experienced a gradual decline in their hearing over time and the hearing loss has become enough that the patient is starting to have difficulty communicating with others. It is when communication starts to become effected that people seek help.
What, you might ask, causes cerumen impaction? Anything that affects the normal outward flow of ear wax may cause impaction, such as advanced age, narrow or abnormally shaped ear canals, use of a hearing aid, incorrect use of cotton swabs, or using needles, hair pins, or other objects to clean the ears. (PSA: Do not stick anything in your ear to clean it!)
Total earwax blockage is rare
What is important to know here is that soundwaves only need a tiny opening in the ear canal to reach the eardrum. So, unless the ear canal is plugged tightly with earwax, there shouldn’t be noticeable hearing loss. When cerumen impaction is severe enough to cause hearing loss, there will likely be other signs and symptoms noticed, such as dizziness, ear fullness (a feeling that something is plugging up your ear), itchiness or pain in the ears and/or ringing in the ears. Rarely does cerumen impaction occur without additional signs that “something is wrong.”
On a recent flight, I looked around and noticed I was the only passenger who didn’t pack headphones. I had to ask the flight attendant for earbuds, as it seemed everyone else packed their own. I started to wonder if my fellow passengers brought their own earbuds along to avoid sharing or to avoid using the complimentary airline buds? And if most people are bringing their earbuds everywhere, just how clean are they, and can they be safely shared?
Lugging our earbuds around with us means our headphones are exposed to many different surfaces, increasing the likelihood of picking up bacteria from our desks, our tray tables, even our bags.
Not only do our earbuds come in contact with contaminated surfaces, studies have shown that simply using earbuds increases the bacteria in our ears 11 fold. That’s because wearing earbuds can trap moisture and heat in the ear canal, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive.
Bacteria bad, earwax good
Lucky for us, our ears have protection against bacteria. It’s our earwax, and it’s often what you see on your earbuds after wearing them. Every ear has wax, or cerumen. Wax is harmless and actually helpful. Wax helps clean, protect and lubricate our ears. Without it, our ear canals would feel itchy and dry.
The wax in our ears also helps keep dirt and debris away from our ear drum. Apocrine glands in the outer part of our ears produce wax. These glands are similar to the glands that make us sweat. And just like an increase in stress or fear can make us sweat more, an increase in stress has also been shown to make our ears produce more earwax!
If your ears produce a lot of wax, you can use a cloth to wipe the outer ear canal or you can put a few drops of over-the-counter ear cleaning drops in your ears to soften and remove the wax. If your ears feel blocked or the wax seems to be affecting your hearing, talk to your doctor or hearing professional about removing it for you. Jaw movements from eating or talking also help move the wax out of our ears. Read here for more ear cleaning tips.
The odds of infection are slim, but still…!
Reports vary on whether sharing earbuds is safe. Business Insider tested 22 pairs of in-the-ear style earbuds at Columbia University’s microbiology lab. Most of the samples yielded results that researchers expected, testing positive for bacteria found on our skin, like staphylococcus. There was one surprise though: two of the samples tested positive for yeast. Yeast is a type of fungus that can cause infection, you can even get a yeast infection in your ears.
Sharing earbuds can introduce new bacteria into your ears, doubling the microbial flora in our ears. And while most of the bacteria is harmless, and the odds of something bad happening are slim, the risk of developing middle ear infections, fungus, and swimmer’s ear does increase when you share earbuds. If there is a cut in your ear canal, sharing can also cause a skin infection.
(BYOE) Bring your own earbuds
My advice would be to avoid sharing your earbuds. If you’re in a pinch and need to share, it’s best to disinfect your earbuds first with rubbing alcohol or a disinfecting spray. Use a dampened cotton ball to wipe off any visible waxy residue and any bacteria hiding there that you can’t see.
You may also want to invest in disposable earbud covers if you have a friend, like me, who always forgets to bring their own.
Just last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) devoted one of their monthly Vital Signs reports to noise-induced hearing loss. Each month, Vital Signs covers “an important health threat” and, as the CDC notes, hearing loss is the “third most common chronic health condition in in the U.S.”
The report goes on to share more alarming facts and statistics. One that stood out is that nearly half of adults who reported trouble hearing had NOT “seen a healthcare provider for their hearing in the past 5 years.” This despite research showing links between untreated hearing loss and increased risk of falls, depression, anxiety, hospitalizations and even dementia.
Great question — and your timing is perfect. After a recent trip to the gym, I came to the sad realization that I’m a wired woman living in a wireless world. Let me explain.
I have to admit: it had been awhile since I’d been to the gym to run on a treadmill! I was looking forward to watching television or listening to music. I had my trusty wired headphones with me, but there wasn’t anywhere to plug them in.
I couldn’t believe it! There I was, stuck with something that needed to be plugged in without a plug in sight! How could this be? There wasn’t a plug on the treadmill and I couldn’t even plug my wired headphones into my new smart phone! I was stuck without anything to pass the time: a wired girl in a wireless world.
Wireless is the way to go
Hearing aid wearers are way ahead of me. Why? Because of wireless hearing aids. Wireless hearing aid wearers can stream media directly to their hearing aids without wires. Wireless hearing aid wearers don’t need cords or input jacks. Wireless connectivity allows wearers to stay connected to family and friends, and stream phone calls, television, and music directly to their hearing aids without people around them hearing what they’re listening to.
Audio can be streamed directly to your hearing aids at listening levels comfortably adjusted to compensate for your hearing loss. Wireless streaming also reduces background noise around you, since hearing aid microphones focus on the incoming streaming signals.
Streaming phone calls directly to your hearing aids offers a hands-free solution, ideal for multitasking. Streaming music allows you to listen to your favorite tunes without headphones. Your hearing aids become the headphones.
In short – you want a wireless hearing aid because they sound better and make life easier.
A question I get often is “what makes digital hearing aids so good?” Oh boy, where do I begin?
All hearing aids have four parts or components: a microphone, an amplifier, a receiver and a battery. When we talk about “digital” we are talking about the amplifier. The amplifier is what makes the sound louder. In previous technologies, referred to as “analog”, that was about all an amplifier could do — make sounds louder.
With digital hearing aids, the amplifier is basically a small computer. A really powerful, really small computer. This small computer can do much more than just amplify sounds, which, in turn, enables many more features in a very small hearing aid! A lot of these features can be confusing, so let me explain each of them.
Feedback Cancellation: Many people are familiar with hearing aids that whistle all by themselves. This whistling is called feedback. Analog hearing aids could only control this by either plugging up the ear or taking away loudness for soft high frequency speech sounds. Digital hearing aids work to remove the feedback before you hear it, and still make sure as many soft speech sounds are available for you to hear.
Directional Microphones: These are components on the hearing aids that help focus on the voices you want to hear and turn down other sounds around you. With analog hearing aids, you had to push a button on the aid to turn on this feature. Digital hearing aids can read the environment and turn on these microphones automatically. In some cases, the digital aid and the microphones can even tell the direction the noise is coming from.
Music Programs: Speech is very different from music. Analog hearing aids — and some early generation digital aids — treated all sounds the same. New digital hearing aids — like our Muse iQ hearing aids— can tell the difference between speech and music and treat the music differently. For the true audio geek, a custom memory or program designed for the unique aspects of music are available in digital hearing aids.
Noise Management: This is a broad category that is designed to help people be more comfortable in a variety of environments. Noise management is mostly needed in busy environments where we want to understand and follow conversations. Another type of noise that is good to manage is soft, annoying sounds such as the refrigerator running or a computer fan humming.
Analog aids could not do much in either of these areas. Analog aids treated all sounds pretty much the same. Soft, average and loud sounds all got amplified. That is a perception many people have of hearing aids — they making everything louder, even the noise.
That all changed with digital hearing aids. Digital technology offers more control and customization than ever before. By being smart enough to understand what the sound is (thank you small, powerful computer!), your hearing aids can do different things for different sounds. Soft environmental sounds may get little or no amplification; loud noisy environments can be turned down. When conversations are going on, digital hearing aids can make it easier to focus in on the conversation.
Connectivity: This is a word we hear a lot of these days. It is the ability of the hearing aid to connect to other devices. Analog aids had only a couple of ways of connecting to only a few things. The most common way was by a cord that plugged into the hearing aid and a headphone jack on the device. Digital hearing aids can connect to many things wirelessly, without any cords! The most common use is connecting with cell phones. You can hear your phone calls directly through your hearing aids. The ability to listen to TV, music and other media through your hearing aids is another advantage of connectivity.
You have to try them for yourself
Bottom line, digital aids are not your grandfather’s hearing aids. If you’re getting your information about hearing aids from someone with old technology, things have changed significantly. Digital hearing aids sound great and can do a lot more for you without you having to do anything.
Open any magazine and you’re bound to find an article on how to turn back the hands of time. Posts on health and wellness are among the most popular on social media. Many of us hope to age gracefully and happily by looking and feeling our best.
But is worrying about looking older delaying our decision to get hearing aids?
For 75 years, the study tracked the lives of its subjects and found that the key to being happy and healthy as we age is the strength of our relationships. It’s not professional accomplishments, financial stability or looking like we did when we were 30. It’s having good relationships.
“The clearest message that we get from this study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier,” said psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, current director of the study. Dr. Waldinger and three generations of fellow researchers examined the medical records, brain scans and interviews of 724 participants over a 75-year period. They also interviewed family and friends, and what they discovered is fascinating.
The study found that the number of friends a person has isn’t important, but the quality of those friendships is.
The quality of our relationships is key
Happiness and health late in life is tied to the health of our relationships. Connectivity to our family, friends and communities are vital for our health. In fact, researchers found that 50-year olds with the highest level of satisfaction in relationships turned out to be the healthiest in their 80s.
Researchers believe secure relationships even help preserve brain function. Good relationships extend healthy life expectancy and quality of life as we age. We are happier and healthier when close friendships are maintained.
Sadly, many of us are not that lucky. An alarming one in five Americans report feelings of loneliness.According to the study, participants who reported feelings of loneliness experienced earlier physical decline and an earlier death than participants with strong social connections.
So what do hearing aids have to do with all this?
Hearing is one of the most basic ways we connect with others. Listening, laughing, and engaging verbally and aurally with loved ones helps form and strengthen the connections that bind relationships.
Hearing loss, on the other hand, can make talking, listening and engaging more difficult. Hearing loss is a well-known precursor to social isolation — which the Harvard study proves it negatively impacts the quality of a person’s relationships and, subsequently, their health and happiness as they age.
Can treating hearing loss help improve relationships?
Conversely, a study by the American Academy of Audiology found that using hearing aids to treat hearing loss improves the health of our relationships at home and work. Treating hearing loss with hearing aids can positively impact overall health. Hearing aid wearers report increased self-confidence and socialization.
Hearing our best improves communication with the important people in our lives, and good communication is one key to maintaining quality relationships over the course of our lifetime.
So, if you want to increase your chances of being happy and healthy as you age, put aside your worries about how hearing aids might look, and invest in yourself by treating your hearing loss and maintain the quality of your relationships. Contact us here.
In a 2015 study that investigated the association between hearing loss and mortality, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that adults 70 years and older with moderate or severe hearing loss had a 54% increased risk of mortality compared to peers without hearing loss.
Researchers studied data from two National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys — the 2005 through 2006 one, and 2009 through 2010 — examining 1,666 adults 70+ who had undergone audiometric testing. Those with hearing loss tended to have shorter lifespans.
While the study’s leads were clear to note the results didn’t prove that hearing loss, alone, shortens lives, they did point out the many negative effects of hearing loss (read some here), suggesting a combination may contribute to the earlier deaths.