Your Hearing and Your Holiday

Some people love the family get together of Thanksgiving. Some grin and bear it. But no matter where one falls on that spectrum, anyone with hearing loss can find such events a challenge.

Being in a crowded holiday space means a congested auditory environment, making it hard to decipher individual words from the cacophony — and conversation a challenge.

If COVID-19 isn’t putting the kibosh on your Thanksgiving plans this year — and your hearing is an issue — there are some things you can do manage the day.

First, remember that taking breaks throughout the day will help. Working through hearing issues is hard mental work and getting some downtime to recharge will not only improve your comprehension but also probably lighten your mood. Walks around the block or sitting in the quietest room in the house are a good idea.

As far as strategies for when you’re in the thick of things, remember that where you position yourself in a room can be important. Not only will you spend a lot of time passing dishes around if you sit in the middle of the table, but you will also be trying to manage voices from either side and in front of you. Sitting at the corner of the table will cut down on the input you have to process. Likewise, stay away from sitting near the TV.

And let people who may not be aware of it know that you’re hard of hearing. Pride is not your friend in this situation. And use the hearing aid if you’ve got one. Trying to fake it will just lead to frustration. If you make it clear that hearing doesn’t come as naturally to you as to others, people will be far more likely to slow down and make things easier.

There’ll be plenty to talk about — hopefully not too much politics — so do everything you can to be part of the conversation.

Time to Take the Bull By the Horns

With October being National Audiology Awareness Month — coming after restricted access to hearing healthcare professionals due to COVID-19 restrictions — now’s a great time to go over some reasons why you should give your hearing issues some attention.

The fact is, ignoring them will not only lead to poorer hearing, but also make a host of other health issues more likely.

One of the most profound reasons, especially for those in middle age, is that poor hearing can contribute to brain atrophy. Hearing isn’t just about your ears. The auditory cortex, part of the temporal lobe, is a portion of the brain that also handles language. If there are issues with the functioning of your ears, this will have a snowball effect and lead to the performance of the auditory cortex degrading — or even switching over to other tasks (which makes hearing issues harder to deal with later).

Poor hearing can also cause issues with brain function in other ways. Alzheimer’s and dementia have both been found to be more prevalent in people with untreated hearing issues. One reason is the brain atrophy referenced above, while the loneliness that often accompanies poor hearing — which makes conversation difficult — is also a significant risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.

This ties in with emotional health. Those with poor hearing have starkly higher rates of depression. Again, the challenge of social activities — when it’s so difficult to interact with people — is the primary driver of this phenomenon.

Poor hearing can even just make you more tired. This is known as listener fatigue and is tied to the brain pouring so much energy into interpreting the poor-quality sound it’s trying to process.

If you’ve gotten to the other side of COVID quarantine with some questions about your hearing, now’s the time to take action and “see” what’s going on.

Please, Just Turn Everything Down

It’s like something from a horror movie or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Some unknown hand has turned up the volume on the world. Everything is just too loud and there’s no way to make it stop.

Unfortunately, this is actually not fantasy for the small minority of people who suffer from hyperacusis. This is a condition that, well, makes everything too loud.

It’s not really understood why it develops, only that very many other issues can spark it. It can come on gradually or suddenly and has been associated with, among other things, exposure to excessive noise, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Lyme disease, viral infections of the head, migraines, brain injuries, and a host of other conditions.

For some reason, a variety of things can cause failures with the parts of the ear that react protectively to loud sounds, along with issues with the auditory nerve and central auditory portion of the brain.

The result is something that can make everyday life a marathon of unpleasantness and frayed nerves. It can be accompanied by pain, nausea, dizziness, and a loss of balance in an environment with excessive noise. Not any fun at all.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure. The best treatment option is sound therapy, which uses a noise generator to buffer the sound environment and train the auditory processing center to relearn its function. This usually takes six months to a year and is done under the supervision of a professional, trained audiologist.

So, for people suffering from hyperacusis, there is hope.

Beware Swimmer’s Ear

Everyone is itching to get out and do something. And swimming is one of the best ways to get some exercise, even though public pools may not be an option due to COVID-19.

But that itch to get in the water can lead to the nasty itch of swimmer’s ear, so take some precautions. And FYI, you don’t need to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear is just the generic name for an outer ear infection (otitis externa). It’s when bacteria works its way into the skin lining the ear canal. Two things make this likely to happen. Abrasions in the skin that are often caused by overly aggressive cleaning of the ear (i.e., vigorously rubbing a Q-tip in there) and ears getting water-logged.

Put the two together with a wide range of common bacteria and the next thing you know your ear (or ears) itch and pushing the tragus (that lump of flesh that protects the opening of the ear canal) or tugging your earlobe is painful.

If things get worse, clear fluid might start draining from the ear — maybe even pus (yuck) — along with hearing loss and pain spreading down into the neck area (which means the infection has gotten to your lymph nodes). A fever is probably part of this too.

Not a great way to celebrate summer. And at this point, a visit to the doctor is in order.

The best way to prevent a bout of swimmer’s ear is to let your ears dry out thoroughly after they’ve gotten wet, whether from swimming, activities in the rain, or sweat. That means not popping a hearing aid back in immediately — give the ear canal some time to work its evaporation magic. Earplugs are also a great idea for swimmers.

If you start feeling an itch, there are over-the-counter eardrops that will both treat an infection and aid the evaporation process. Bottles are less than $10, so a preventive care bargain when compared to a doctor’s visit.

Masks and Hearing Aids Don’t Really Work Well Together

Everyone was hoping that COVID-19 would be less and less a part of our lives as the summer rolled on. That’s not looking too likely now.

And wearing a mask when out in public appears to be one of the keys to getting control of this newest coronavirus.

Which presents some challenges to anyone with hearing issues, especially those who use hearing aids.

The obvious fact is that hearing someone who is wearing a mask is significantly more difficult. The mask muffles their voice. And facial expressions and “lip reading” visual cues are absent.

The only real solutions are ensuring that the person you’re speaking with knows about your hearing issue — so they can try to speak more slowly and clearly — and avoiding noisy environments (which make conversations more challenging even in the best of times).

As far as wearing a mask, the first step is creating a routine that allows you to get a mask on and off without knocking your hearing aid out. Practice makes perfect.

But a mask with a tie string — as opposed to elastic ear loops — might make this easier (though the knot does have to be retied periodically to keep the mask snug). The other option is using a mask holder, which cinches up the elastic bands behind your head (avoiding the ears completely). They can be purchased with easy-to-use buttons — or improvised with s-hooks or even large paperclips.

Finally, hearing aid providers may have some clever tricks they can share with you as we all come to terms with living with COVID-19.

A Month For Men to Think of Their Health

In part to honor Father’s Day, June is Men’s Health Month. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is meant to “… raise awareness about health care for men and focus on encouraging boys, men, and their families to practice and implement healthy living decisions.”

And one area of health to consider this month is hearing health.

This may not come as a shock, but men are less likely to take steps to deal with hearing issues than women are. This even though men are, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, at double the probability for having such issues.

There are a number of risk factors that make men more likely to develop hearing loss:

  • Men suffer from diabetes at a somewhat higher rate than women; the condition makes hearing loss twice as likely.
  • Studies have tied regular use of common painkillers, known as analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) with a higher risk of hearing loss in men.
  • Long-term exposure to loud work environments (careers like construction, manufacturing, or the military) and recreational pastimes (hunting, sports, small motors like lawn mowers and leaf blowers) present significant risk for hearing loss.

Ultimately, degraded hearing is not the only thing men need to worry about. There is now a wealth of evidence showing that poor hearing — especially later in life — is a significant driver of mental health issues like depression and degraded overall cognitive performance.

So, make June a time to think about your hearing and how to protect it. Or make the man in your life do it.

A Change of Plans

Since 1927, May has been Better Hearing and Speech Month.

But there’s never been a year quite like this one.

Activities and programs meant to center, this year, on issues around “Communication at Work” have had to be shelved to deal with the elephant in the room that no one can ignore: COVID-19.

The organization that first established and still manages Better Hearing and Speech Month, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), has had to switch gears.

Representing 211,000 members and affiliates — from audiologists to speech-language pathologists to support personnel — ASHA decided to turn its attention to the immediate matters at hand. The focus is now on providing resources for managing current circumstances — and helping shape the nation’s response to COVID.

This has included helping craft changes to federal telehealth payment regulations to allow for more “distance” consulting by audiologists, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This month’s focus is also on helping hearing health professionals institute best practices in their facilities in order to restrict the spread of the virus.

In addition, ASHA has published a “COVID-19 and Hearing Loss in Adults: Strategies at Home” pamphlet to help individuals cope with issues during this time of restricted access to professional in-person support. Further guidelines will continue to be published throughout the month by ASHA.

Everyone in the hearing health profession is struggling to create new protocols on the fly. This includes students whose preparations for entering the field have been disrupted, researchers who have had to halt studies, and manufacturers whose product development work has been paused.

Eventually, in-person care will return. But rescheduling cancelled appointments and overdue hearing aid maintenance will have to wait for now.

Bluetooth-Enhanced Hearing Aids Are Becoming the Norm

Wireless has pretty much settled-in as a consumer buzzword. It basically means being able to connect computing devices without cluttering things up with a tangle of cords.

It is a capability that is increasingly being extended to hearing aids. Wireless capability is quickly becoming the norm.

And this is usually based on Bluetooth, the dominant wireless protocol.

What Bluetooth does is create a concentrated wireless network, one that doesn’t extend too far in any direction. That makes possible a wide range of inter-connectivity, from printers and laptops to smartphones and desktops.
And now hearing aids connecting with most of the above (though no one’s explored the possibility of a hearing aid talking to a printer).

What can also happen is, using an app, hearing aids can be fine-tuned and controlled without actually having to touch them. Given how small they are becoming, this brings an ease-of-use that wasn’t possible a couple of generations ago, when fumbling with dials and buttons was the norm. A wide range of adjustments can easily be made using a smartphone’s touchscreen.

A Bluetooth network can also mean you can stream audio from your smartphone or TV directly into your hearing aid. And by extension, Bluetooth allows hearing aids to become a part of the Internet of Things (IoT). This opens up a wide range of possibilities.

One of the most significant for hearing aid users is being able to upload data from a hearing aid to a hearing health professional, who can analyze it and make adjustments to your hearing aid that will increase its performance. Some models even allow this to happen in real-time.

Hearing aids aren’t what they were only 10 years ago.

Drinking Does Not Help Your Hearing

It’s widely known that excessive drinking — especially chronic alcohol consumption — can lead to any number of health issues. And one of them is definitely degrading hearing, both over the short- and long-term.

Something to maybe think about on St. Patrick’s Day.

The first part of this is a no-brainer. There’s actually a specific part of your brain — the auditory cortex — that is dedicated to transforming the electrical impulses it receives from the ear into what you recognize as “hearing.” And needless to say, too much alcohol throws off brain function. Enough alcohol in the bloodstream and it seeps into that corner of your brain.

A more long-lasting concern is alcohol-drenched blood that can damage the tiny auditory hair in the cochlea, which is where the electronic signals sent to the auditory cortex originate. These hairs do not regenerate, so when damage occurs it’s permanent (which is why aging is often accompanied by hearing loss). This part of the inner ear is very dependent on healthy blood flow — and alcohol does not help.

As with too much alcohol in the brain throwing things off in the short-term, the same can happen in the inner ear. Alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow (and decreases blood pressure). All of this can throw off the balance of the inner ear. This can cause tinnitus, which is an incessant ringing. And, since your balance is controlled by the inner ear, it can literally throw off your balance. They don’t call it falling down drunk for nothing.

One other St. Patrick’s Day tip. Watch out for cocktail deafness. This is when alcohol consumption makes a loud environment not seem all that loud — or at least worthy of concern. For hours and hours. And waking up with damaged ears can be one result.

For the Sake of the Ears, Remember That It’s Cold Outside

Now that we’re deep into winter, it’s time to remember to protect our ears from what the season can throw at us — the cold, the wet, the flu. And hearing aids need some special love too.
Since it’s the season to get sick, ear infections can be a regular aspect of winter. This will bring fluid buildup, which can actually cause temporary hearing loss. The best defense is to not get sick, so eat well, stay dry, push the vitamin C, and keep those ears dry—letting them get cold and wet in the weather will definitely make an ear infection more likely.

If you already use a hearing aid, then that bit about staying warm and dry will serve them well too. If you expect to spend time in the elements, then spandex hearing aid covers are available that will significantly cut down on their exposure to moisture.

But cold rain or swirling snow are not the only culprits. There is also the perspiration that will likely build up in your ear from being bundled up. Making sure your hearing aids get good and dry with regularity — consider an overnight dehumidifier — will protect your investment and ensure better operation.

And one way you might get sweaty is dealing with all that snow. If you have a snow blower, then remember that it can produce over 100 decibels when blasting away. Without hearing protection, that can damage your ears. So make sure you use some earplugs or noise-reducing headphones when running one.

There are any number of winter-related realities to prepare for. Protecting your ears and hearing aids is just one more.