Don’t Let Your Ears Suffer From The Music

The contemporary summer music festival scene isn’t synonymous with the hard-of-hearing generation—they went to Woodstock—but hearing loss should be on the younger set’s radar.

That’s because nearly one-fourth of Americans between 18 and 44 are believed to already be dealing with hearing loss issues. Between the rise of earbuds, the increase of high-volume media in public spaces, and the general loudness of modern life, there is a clear trend of hearing loss working its way down from the older generation.

With music festivals back on the agenda for the summer of 2021—after being scrubbed last year—now’s a good time to think about protecting your ears if you plan on once again diving into live music this summer. The damage done by extended exposure to excessive sound is rarely treatable; it’s permanent and can accumulate over time until hearing aids are really the only remedy.

One thing to remember, especially if you’re going to be onsite for hours on end, is that letting your ears take some breaks from loudness will lessen the risk of damage. Like most parts of your body, overuse will lead to problems.

But the best protection is earplugs. Generic ones are good, custom-fitted ones better.

If going to shows is an aspect of your life you’ve been looking forward to getting back into, and you expect to see a lot of shows to make up for lost COVID time, then investing in some professionally-fitted ear molds might be a wise move. They’ll provide a high level of protection while not interfering with sound quality, ensuring that your enjoyment of concerts for years to come does not come at the price of your long-term hearing health.

Hearing and Lingering COVID

Many of our patients are looking for some sense of long-term impact of COVID, asking themselves how long do COVID symptoms last? And although broad in nature, for the overwhelming majority of us who will get COVID, most will overcome the symptoms of the illness within several days.

However, Long-haul COVID is a condition that has slowly become more recognized by both the medical profession and the public at large. It covers a wide range of symptoms that people who recovered from bouts of COVID-19—even mild cases—found themselves dealing with for months on end.

The most serious of these are extreme fatigue and problems breathing, degraded brain function, and heart inflammation that can be a serious threat for cardiac arrest (this last has included some world-class athletes).

A few symptoms related to hearing have also been reported, especially tinnitus, which is a constant high-end ringing sound. A few cases of sudden, direct hearing loss have cropped up and bouts of vertigo are another area of concern.

Tinnitus is not only the most commonly reported hearing-related side effect of COVID, but also the area that has received the most study. A recent report in Frontiers in Public Health entitled “Changes in Tinnitus Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic” followed the experience of over 3,000 people who had tinnitus and then came down with COVID. It found the about 40 percent of them reported that their condition worsened. For some it was a brief experience, for others it extended much longer.

Given that—though it’s hard to believe—COVID-19 has only been with us for less than two years, continuing the monitor patients is the only path forward in order to learn more about the long-term impact.

As the report states: “Those who have had COVID-19 should be monitored for changes in hearing-related problems, such as initiation or worsening of tinnitus. There is most likely also a cohort of patients who experienced an onset of tinnitus during this period and who will need access to clinical care for their tinnitus.”

The good news is that some COVID long haulers have found that their symptoms have lessened once they were fully vaccinated.

Now That You Can Fly Somewhere Again, Make It a Pleasant Experience

It looks like the coming months could fill our calendars, and the sky, as commercial airliners take people on long-delayed vacations and business trips as COVID restrictions are lifted. If it’s been a while, it’s a good time to remember that flying can put a real beating on your ears and that taking precautions is wise.

Dealing with changes in air pressure that can’t be avoided—especially during takeoffs and landings—is usually something that your body can handle. Planes are designed to compensate for this and your ears (in close coordination with the eustachian tubes) can handle the rest.

But … if you’re clogged up from a cold, allergies, or other reason something could go awry. The eustachian tubes, which are the passageway between the ear canal and throat, need to be fully functional to deal with the rapid change in air pressure. Even at full capacity, ear-popping can be unpleasant. If they’re clogged up, then actual damage to the eardrum is possible, which is known as barotrauma.

Basically, the surface of the eardrum is drawn inward too fast and hard, which can lead to tearing or rupture. Not good.

If you’re feeling congested before a flight, taking a decongestant is advisable. Likewise, specialized earplugs designed to counter air pressure changes are also a good idea (they also protect the ears from the loudness of jet engines).

Even good old-fashioned gum chewing works, since the chomping motion forces the eustachian tubes to be more malleable, creating create better airflow from the inner ear.

You might have a better trip if you take these precautions and a visit to a hearing professional pre-flight could also be a good choice!

Take Hearing Loss Seriously

There are a host of reasons to take hearing loss seriously and then take steps to counteract it, including the obvious ones like increasing quality of life and better maintaining social connections and work skills.

But another more ominous one is the increasing evidence that untreated hearing loss can adversely impact the onset of dementia.

According to the website of Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of the world’s premier medical institutions: “In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins expert Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D, and his colleagues found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.”

The risk can’t be much clearer than that.

Although the causal link is not fully understood, the suspicion is that the lack of input from the auditory system actually causes parts of the brain to atrophy. Basically, not only is the complex functions that translate external sound waves into internal hearing via electrical impulses the way we hear, but it’s also great exercise for the brain. When it is curtailed, the ultimate receiver—the brain—degrades due to a lack of activity.

Another theory is that the dwindling ability to communicate well with others leads to social isolation and loneliness, both of which have also been linked to increased risk for the onset of dementia.

Regardless of the particulars, the obvious takeaway is that hearing loss should be treated as soon as possible. With modern hearing aids, treating it is now routine and should not be delayed. And testing hearing should join other passages of middle age—like colon cancer screening, cholesterol profiles, and shingles vaccine boosters—as part of a holistic approach to health.

Giving the Gift of Hearing at the End of a Long Year

The lockdown year we’ve all just lived through has been one of sacrifice, loss, and resolve for us all. We’ve realized that we’re all in the same boat and answered the call with a recommitment to charitable giving.

Back in December, we carried out our Gift of Hearing event, our third annual. It features open nominations of people who—because of their public service or unique circumstances—not only have hearing issues but also are deserving of a gift of premium hearing aids.

Like the United Way’s Personal Item Supply Drive we’re currently supporting with drop boxes at our office until the end of March (please contribute personal items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, razors that will be directed to food pantries and community shelters), the “Gift of Hearing” event pays it forward in these challenging times.

Given the realities of 2020, we couldn’t choose just one deserving recipient, so we picked two.

Our first recipient was Gary, who has lived with hearing loss for all of his life and has handled all of the challenges that entails. Hearing aids are vital to him and, as a winner of our Gift of Hearing event, this lifeline to fully participating in daily life stays accessible to him.

The second winner was Donald, a military vet who not only deals with hearing loss issues but also has undergone major heart surgery. Through it all, he’s continued working and giving back to the community.

We’re proud to have found two such deserving recipients.

Few Shortcuts For Hearing Loss

Anyone who’s dealing with the realization that their ability to hear isn’t what it once was would like to find a cure, the metaphoric “magic bullet” that will make things better.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of people it doesn’t — at least not yet — work that way. The most likely cause for hearing loss is aging and the biologically driven weakening of the complex mechanisms of the ear (especially the tiny hairs of the cochlear). Exposure to extreme sound events can also cause permanent damage.

This is known as sensorineural hearing loss, which causes more than 90 percent of hearing issues for adults. As the webpage of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) states:” This is the most common type of permanent hearing loss. Most of the time, medicine or surgery cannot fix SNHL. Hearing aids may help you hear.”

And the sad fact is that once damaged, most parts of the ear can’t be repaired with drug treatments or surgery.

Is there hope on the horizon? Yes. But it’s still a possibility for the future, not a current reality.

There are drugs in development that, it is hoped, will coax the tiny hairs of the inner ear — which are the transition point for sound waves being turned into electrical impulses that can be interpreted by the brain — to regrow, which they cannot do naturally. Hair tonic for the cochlear. One such product is even in Phase 2 trials, meaning a small number of people of being treated to test efficacy.

There is also significant research in the use of gene therapy to treat hearing loss. Such treatments seek to “reprogram” genetic sequences in the body to treat or cure conditions. Dealing with congenital hearing loss issues and “teaching” hairs in the cochlea to regrow are definitely areas of research in this promising field, but practical treatments are years away.

For now, most hearing loss issues will require embracing the old-fashioned — though now digitally driven — hearing aid.

Apps For Your Ears

Most people these days have a smartphone. Some people use hearing aids. And that’s a match made in tech heaven.

Like smartphones, today’s hearing aids are really computers. They process sound, digitize data, and communicate wirelessly with other devices in the vicinity. This is the stuff of science fiction from 50 years ago.

It is with apps that anyone can use their smartphone — or tablet or computer — to enhance the performance of their hearing aids and open up a wealth of ways to better use them.

The most obvious way is by granting access to a wide range of controls that would never be feasible directly with machines as small as hearing aids (especially those that are fitted directly into the ear canal). Current software cannot just do routine things like adjust volume, treble, and bass but also capture and store the “soundscapes” of specific places, which are then used to counteract the specific hearing issues of the user when they visit these places.

Apps can also upload the data captured by hearing aids to providers and manufacturers, allowing for troubleshooting and building user-specific performance profiles.

Bluetooth connectivity also allows apps to be the go-betweens for hearing aids and other appliances like TVs, stereos, phones, and even doorbells or other attention-getting devices. Sound can be streamed directly into hearing aids rather than being part of the ambient sound in a room that has to be processed all together.

And your hearing aid’s app will also provide easy access to information, such as battery levels, and the ability to go straight to the instruction manual without tracking it down in a drawer or through an online search.

There’s not much these apps can’t do.

Hearing In the Age of Zoom Meetings

You don’t have to like it … but you may have to endure it. Because of  COVID-19, videoconferencing is now a thing.

And if you have any type of hearing issue — whether it requires hearing aids or not — trying to get important work done via Zoom or Skype can be a challenge. And then there’s overseeing a child or grandchild on Google Classroom, which is a whole other level of chore.

There are some things you can control that will make the experience better. And there are a few things you can ask the other participants in a videoconference to do to help you out.

On your end, if there are any Internet-speed issues on the network you’re using, try to solve them. Make sure there’s not a big file being downloaded in the background or anyone else in the house is watching a movie. Herky-jerky streaming certainly won’t help.

Also, make sure you’re away from distractions. Sitting in a dining room with a laptop when someone is in the kitchen — and liable to turn on the blender or start the dishwasher — is asking for trouble.

If you have headphones, use them, as this will help cut down on distractions and heighten audio quality. Likewise, if you have a Bluetooth-enabled hearing aid, then routing the audio straight into it will work wonders.

As far as what others can do, having ground rules so people won’t talk over one another while studiously using their mute button is paramount in making things easier for the hearing impaired (and everyone else too). And doing introductions — allowing time to match faces to voices and to carry out any necessary adjustments to volume settings — is always a good idea.

Given the current circumstances with COVID-19, meeting on the Internet will be with us for the foreseeable future. Might as well make it as pleasant as possible.

Hearing During The Holidays

Like everything else in 2020, Thanksgiving festivities are going to be a challenge. Bringing people together during the COVID-19 pandemic will present a number of issues. And there’ll be the aftermath of the election. That’s a lot on the proverbial table this year.

But for anyone with hearing issues, these kinds of gatherings — which usually mean a generous amount of noise stuffed into a confined space — have always been an experiment in coping.

The fact is that “crowded” audio environments are the toughest, whether someone uses a hearing aid or not.

Here are some tips on dealing with the challenges at hand:

  • A good place to start, if you do have a hearing aid — especially if you got it recently — is to use it! Don’t let pride or embarrassment (or false confidence that your hearing isn’t that bad) get in the way of communicating. It’s not uncommon for people to not want to advertise their need for a hearing aid. But really, let that go.
  • Likewise, don’t be shy about telling people who may not know it that you’re hearing challenged — and that you need to see them clearly when they speak to better understand them.
  • Where you spend your time is important too. Try not to sit in the middle of the table, since that will mean dealing with sound from both sides simultaneously. Avoid being too close to the TV.
  • And taking a break — like sitting in a quiet room or taking a walk — can do wonders for your ability to process sound after concentrating in a noisy environment.

Everyone will be facing a uniquely challenging holiday season this year. Don’t let any hearing issues add to the list.

The Ways Hearing Can Go South

The annual National Audiology Awareness Month is recognized each October. One of the many things hearing health professionals do is examine people who have realized that their hearing is not functioning at the level they expect. At this preliminary stage, it is required to broadly diagnose what kind of hearing loss is being manifested.

The field uses four comprehensive classes of hearing loss when treating someone. These are sensorineural, auditory processing, conductive, and mixed hearing loss.

The first type, sensorineural, is due to damage to the inner ear or the nerve transmitters that send electrical signals to the brain. The performance of either the cochlea (which is the part of the ear that creates nerve impulses from the sound waves that have been processed by other parts of the ear) or the vestibulocochlear nerve (the communication conduit between the ears and the brain) — or both — have degraded in some way. Aging and long-term exposure to excessive sound are the most likely culprits in adults and hearing aids are the most common treatment.

When there is a breakdown between ears that are functioning correctly and the part of the brain that receives electrical inputs via the vestibulocochlear nerve, it is known as an auditory processing disorder. More common in children — about 5 percent of school-age kids suffer from it — it is not completely understood but has been linked to ear infections, head trauma, and premature birth. A wide range of treatments are combined to deal with individual situations.

The simplest type is conductive hearing loss; something’s just gotten in the way. It could be earwax, swelling of the ear’s walls or other organs, or an infection or allergies that have filled the ear canal with fluid. In rare circumstances, a benign tumor (fibrous dysplasia) or injured eardrum is the culprit. Depending on the issue, medical treatment usually solves the problem, but in some cases hearing aids are needed as a work-around.

Finally, the aptly-named mixed hearing loss is the category for some combination of the above three classifications.