Gradual hearing loss is one of those conditions a lot of us will face as we get older, but it may be hard to realize it’s happening. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," recently spoke with Joseph Pellegrino, director of audiology at the Gebbie Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Syracuse University, about how hearing loss happens and some new technologies that help people cope with hearing loss.
Lorraine Rapp: Is hearing loss inevitable as we age and what happens physically to cause it?
Pellegrino: Hearing loss is not inevitable. I’ve seen patients that are 45, 50 years old that are experiencing or exhibiting some of the characteristics of early on-set age-related hearing loss. I’ve seen individuals that are 90 years or older and they have perfectly normal hearing. So inevitable? No. Likely? Perhaps. The statistics show that roughly 45 percent of individuals 65 and older have some degree of age-related hearing loss.
Lorraine Rapp: Is there a hereditary factor involved or is it just circumstantial and, you know, cumulative?
Pellegrino: We used to think more circumstantial and cumulative, however, there’s some very interesting research coming out, oh, probably late last year, late 2012, mostly out of the University of South Florida
and WHERE they’ve identified a gene that is linked to age-related hearing loss. So future use of this, perhaps we’d be able to do some genetic testing and find out if individuals are predisposed to age-related hearing loss, so there is the potential for that genetic link.
Lorraine Rapp: What kinds of steps can people take now, let’s say in middle age, to slow the process?
Pellegrino: There’s some very interesting research that’s going on right here at Syracuse University, Dr. Karen Doherty, one of my colleagues, is looking at cognitive function in individuals, younger individuals, 50 to 60 years of age, with mild degrees of hearing loss. So the early on-set age related hearing loss. And she’s finding that individuals that are taking the steps to get hearing aids at an earlier age are actually improving their cognitive function while they have those hearing aids on. And we’re also finding that individuals that pursue hearing aids at an earlier age adjust to them much more quickly and are happier with their hearing aids as they move forward with them. So, early intervention I think is key.
Linda Lowen: Can you explain physically what goes on in the ear that causes hearing loss?
Pellegrino: As we get older, there are degenerative changes that happen mostly within the inner ear. There are some changes to the middle ear, related to the stiffening of the middle ear bone or perhaps the Eustachian tube not working as well as it once did, but by in large, the mechanism of damage is happening within the inner ear. But then there’s also, with regard to where the damage takes place and what’s happening, there’s also a neural component to it, as well. The neural connections between the ear and the brain slowly degenerate with time, as well, and that’s when we have a real tough time understanding what people are saying.
Lorraine Rapp: What are some of the advancements in digital hearing aids?
Pellegrino: Hearing aid manufacturers are doing a great job of making the sound a bit more natural, a bit clearer, a bit crisper. The other new advancement in the world of hearing aids is Bluetooth connectivity. We’re able to pair hearing aids to Bluetooth enabled devices so you can stream your telephone, your laptop, your iPod directly through the hearing aid. We can certainly control the volume so we’re not inducing more hearing loss through the noise exposure, but it makes listening much easier in many different types of situations.
More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.