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.

Time to Stop Putting It Off

Obviously, COVID-19 has made visiting an audiologist challenging and, for a period of time in many places, pretty much impossible. Which has had the side effect of making ignoring your hearing issues more convenient.

Now is a good time to face up to facts if you’ve been noticing changes in your hearing.

Here are three good reasons to take care of issues now rather than later.

First, it’s good for your emotional health (something we’re all dealing with these days). Several studies have shown that people with untreated hearing loss are at higher risk for depression and anxiety—stemming from how easy it is to slide into isolation when having conversations is more difficult.

Another huge issue is how important good hearing is for overall brain function. There is now plentiful evidence that hearing loss leads directly to brain atrophy as neurons are reassigned due to the decrease of auditory input. This can lead to not just short-term issues; it is linked to higher rates of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to the article “Hearing Loss and Dementia: Breakthrough Research Seeks Causal Link” published in The Hearing Journal last year: “The risk of developing dementia doubles for older adults with mild hearing loss, and triples for those with moderate hearing loss. And for those with severe hearing loss, the risk is five times that of someone who does not suffer hearing loss.”

And there can be more direct physical repercussions to untreated hearing loss. Issues with the inner ear’s vestibular system, which controls balance, makes the likelihood of suffering from a fall more likely. And for those over 65, falls are actually the leading cause of accidental death. A checkup with an audiologist will include testing this important aspect of hearing health.

Now’s the time to stop putting off dealing with any hearing issues you’re experiencing.

A Month For Men to Consider Their Health

Thanks to Congressional action in 1994, June is officially Men’s Health Month. Actually, the original legislation — first sponsored by then-Senator and later Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole — proclaimed June 12 to 19 National Men’s Health Week. Inflation ensued and now it’s a whole month.

The purpose is to encourage men to realize “… the value that preventive health can play in prolonging their lifespan and their role as a productive family member [and] be more likely to participate in health screenings.”

And in the specific realm of hearing health, men do have some areas of concern to keep in mind.

The fact is, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, men are twice as likely to have hearing loss issues than women. And less likely to seek treatment.

The disparity is not fully understood, though the greater percentage of men having industrial jobs in sectors like construction and the military is thought to play a role in this statistical reality. The fact that men hunt with firearms at a much higher rate is probably also a factor. The best solution to these realities is to embrace the use of hearing protection, since long-term exposure to high-decibel sound environments is one of the surest ways to develop hearing issues.

Unfortunately, there is also some evidence that the regular use of many analgesics — common pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — can also be a risk factor for hearing loss in men (especially so in younger men). The cause is not clear, but just in cast try not to get in the habit of just taking pain relievers when not really needed.

Diabetes is also a risk factor, doubling one’s chances of developing hearing loss. And the rate of diabetes is slightly higher for men than women.

Finally, hearing loss is not an isolated condition. It is tied to an increased risk of depression and cognitive decline.

So, this June is the perfect time to think about making some lifestyle changes to protect your hearing or visiting a hearing health professional for a checkup.

Normal Isn’t the Operative Word These Days

In normal years, Better Hearing & Speech Month rolls around every May and a topic is embraced by the hearing health industry, led by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

But this is so not a normal year.

On the last day of April, ASHA released a statement making it clear that the already chosen theme “Communication at Work” had to be seriously altered. Instead, efforts would center on providing information and support in these unprecedented times of COVID-19.

“Our goal is to champion every person’s ability to communicate, including at this difficult time. Although circumstances are quite unprecedented for this year’s Better Hearing & Speech Month, the expertise and dedication of ASHA members are constant,” said ASHA President Theresa H. Rodgers. “The countless, innovative ways audiologists and speech-language pathologists have transformed their work during the pandemic — striving to help their patients, clients, and students to the fullest extent possible — testify to their unwavering commitment to ASHA’s vision of making effective communication, a human right, accessible and achievable for all.”

ASHA represents over 200,000 members, all of whom have been scrambling to change course. This has meant everything from instituting telemedicine and drop box services to suspending clinical trials and teaching college- and graduate-level courses remotely.

For individuals stuck at home, ASHA will be providing information on its website covering challenges that many are facing, including helping children with hearing issues deal with remote schooling and a lack of in-person therapy, managing virtual meetings when hearing impaired, and managing communication issues for the hard of hearing.

Updates can be found on the ASHA website.

Waking up with Rare Hearing Loss

When a woman wakes up one morning and can’t hear the voices of men — well, the jokes kind of write themselves. Wouldn’t it be great to have that switch?

But for a Chinese woman in Xiamen that this happened to recently, it was a case of reverse-sloping hearing loss — and no doubt did not feel like a joke. Nor for anyone who comes down with this rare condition.

Most hearing loss starts at the high end of the sound spectrum. That’s how it works for the vast majority of people and there is a common graph — the ski slope hearing loss curve — that is produced when a hearing test is charted.

Reverse-sloping hearing loss has the opposite curve.

After her ears started ringing (tinnitus) and she vomited the night before, the woman woke up and realized that she had experienced a form of sudden hearing loss. She could no longer hear her boyfriend when he spoke to her. A trip to the emergency room — and luckily a female doctor — quickly confirmed that her hearing was gone in the part of the spectrum where most male voices reside (she couldn’t hear the man sharing her hospital room either).

The condition is very rare — only 3,000 cases are reported annually in the United States — and can be dangerous, since automobile engines and other machinery produce sound in the same part of the sound range.

Eventually, it was determined that stress was the likely cause, aggravated by working late and not getting enough sleep. It should be noted that the role stress can play in hearing issues is often not fully realized.

Hearing Loss At the Bottom of the Age Ladder

The cliché is that hearing issues are for the oldsters, something to look out for when the Social Security checks start showing up or even a tagalong with a mid-life crisis.

But the fact is, for some people, their genetics forward-loads that process into the years of childhood. The vast majority of children won’t develop hearing issues. But some will.

And for a variety of reasons, it can be easy to miss. Like not realizing immediately that a kid’s eyesight is degrading, hearing can alter slowly enough so that it’s not immediately apparent.

The adults that surround children can all make assumptions about behavior and not realize that what is really going on is a hearing problem. Not responding to verbal instructions can be chalked up to short attention spans. Teenage angst can be blamed for any kind of behavior.

But here are some signs that a hearing test for a child might be required:

  • Yes, kids often like to turn the volume up (especially for music). But if they seem to actually need high volume to follow TV shows or talk radio then maybe more is afoot.
  • Noticing a child consistently turning their head so that they’re using the same ear to listen to you can be a sign that there’s an issue in the other ear.
  • If it seems they have to see you talking to actually understand you can also be a sign. Depending on visual cues to follow conversations when hearing is weakened can be a subconscious adaptation.
  • Falling grades and teacher concern about being active in class can also be a signal of hearing issues.

Tests are simple and easily arranged. And it’s always better to deal with hearing loss sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line Cost of Untreated Hearing Loss

Hearing loss that goes untreated is not just a quality-of-life issue. It can be a financial one too.

The Better Hearing Institute (BHI) conducted a survey that found that individuals with more minor hearing issues that they did not rectify saw a decrease in income. And people with more significant hearing issues that weren’t treated were unemployed at twice the rate as people without hearing issues.

It’s hard to imagine any job that doesn’t demand communication skills. And poor hearing will obviously cause issues in most cases.

With the trend of hearing issues cropping up earlier in life for many people, this is an issue that will become more significant in human resource departments and for individual workers. In fact, most of the 40 million Americans who have hearing issues are still working. Estimates are that 10 percent of the workforce has some problem with their hearing.

In addition, the trend is also for older people to stay in the workforce at higher rates than just a few decades ago.

The BHI study also showed that effective treatment curtailed the economic impact of hearing loss. Workers with mild hearing loss who got hearing aids saw the downward effect on their incomes cut by 90 to 100 percent. A reduction of 65–77 percent was found for those with severe to moderate hearing loss.

These trends — along with the fact that some jobs expose workers to extreme noise environments — will mean that recognizing and treating hearing loss will probably become a more normalized part of the work environment. It is in the interest of both employers and employees to proactively deal with this issue.