Listen up — there’s good news about hearing loss
First, our gift to you: a free online hearing test! (Listening test requires headphones.)
Go to: HEARING TEST
Can we just say, bling-bling and shine on with your fine self? The new breed of hearing aids is a far, far cry from those big, clunky, whistling devices that seemed intent on calling all the dogs in the neighborhood with high-pitched squealing. Not to mention the fact that the pale-pink plastic housing was marketed as “flesh-colored” — presuming that your flesh found its genetic roots in Northern Europe.
Imperfect hearing can put you at a social disadvantage. You may not hear your phone ring, so you miss an important call. You may not hear the approach of a car behind you when you’re out walking your dog, causing a driver to swerve around you and possibly add drama to the situation with a loud, long honk. And maybe worst of all, listening to your favorite music, you may not be able to perceive those shivery, silvery high notes of a falsetto voice, or the deep, chocolatey tones of a singer’s lower range.
And now for the elephant in the room: social stigma. There really should be no shame surrounding hearing impairment or loss, but there is. Often an accompaniment to healthy aging, hearing loss may be construed as a loss of competency. This perception may make us withdraw from social activities because we’re embarrassed to keep asking others to repeat themselves. And, let’s face it: our hearing loss may annoy others. so they may indeed begin excluding us from bridge games, outings, and conversations simply because we’ve become “high maintenance” as the result of diminished hearing.
But there’s potentially more to hearing loss than simply being unable to pick up sounds. Other health issues may accompany the loss of hearing. For example, depression. People with hearing loss often report feeling depressed, possibly because they may be excluded from familiar experiences of contact and interaction, like an ongoing Spades game, or that bi-weekly trans-Atlantic Zoom call with extended family. Hearing loss may also signal trouble elsewhere, namely in your pancreas, in the form of approaching diabetes.
A six-year study conducted at Johns Hopkins revealed that loss of hearing may make your brain less sharp. Because hearing less may mean that you’re participating in fewer conversations, or communicating less, there’s evidence that this loss of interaction may cause your brain to operate less efficiently as a result. In this way, hearing loss may contribute to memory loss. Whether or not this loss is temporary or permanent remains unknown.
In some cases, the level of brain plasticity (literally, stretchiness– think Silly Putty!) and responsiveness is normal, but reduced stimulation allows the neural pathways which keep the memory active and alive to go dormant. The process is like vegetation growing over a path. When people walk on the path every day, it stays clear. When there’s no foot traffic, the vines and weeds take over and cover up the path.
Think of using your brain like riding a bicycle. If the bicycle’s been in the garage for five years, the bicycle itself may still actually work. Nothing’s missing or broken. You just need to put air in the tires, blow off the dust and spiderwebs, and maybe oil the chain! Your brain is like that bicycle, and living with significantly impaired hearing is like putting your bike in the garage.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIH), nearly 25 percent of Americans between the ages of 65 and 75 experience disabling hearing loss. That percentage climbs to 50 percent — meaning half — of people 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. Fewer than one in three (30 percent) of these have ever used hearing aids. Disabling hearing loss is defined by Black Doctor as the inability to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies. To put this into context, normal conversation is usually around 50 decibels, unless you’re on the subway (in which case you’ll need to project at 90+ decibels). A chainsaw sounds off at 106-115 decibels, while a gunshot is about 140 decibels. This gradual hearing loss is common, and it’s called presbycusis. It’s usually not reversible (although be aware that the build-up of normal ear-wax may muffle sounds and diminish your ability to hear, so get that checked out pronto!).
Some studies suggest a link between hearing loss and rheumatoid arthritis. Also, some medications may affect your hearing, as well as your balance (balance and equilibrium are also managed by the inner ear). Even a subtle decline in balance may lead to the falls which can be so dangerous for us seniors. Not coincidentally, women with osteoporosis also are more prone to hearing loss. Both of these conditions can reduce your mobility as well as your quality of life, so don’t ignore any signs or changes that are bothering you.
Hearing loss associated with age is generally gradual. It’s annoying, but not necessarily a symptom of any larger issue. However, a rapid, sudden loss of hearing is cause for concern, since this abrupt change may signal the risk of cardio-cerebrovascular disease and stroke. Always discuss any extreme or unusual changes in your health with your healthcare provider.
BLACK GIRL MAGIC TO THE RESCUE!
Now that you’re ready to explore, just go on now and rock that fab, high-tech earpiece to channel your inner Uhuru as played in the iconic Star Trek television series by the consummately elegant Nichelle Nichols. And remember that “audio,” “audible,” and “audience” come from the same root word as “audacity” and “audacious.” Being audacious literally means making yourself heard, lady. We call it living out loud. And we like it.
There is good news: the NIH reveals that non-Hispanic Black adults have the lowest prevalence of hearing loss among adults aged 20-69. A study is now underway at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health exploring the thesis that both estrogen, the female sex hormone, and high melanin content may have a protective effect on the inner ear, helping to preserve hearing. Now that’s what we call Black Girl Magic! It’s true. A 2017 study by the National Institutes of Health reveals that a high concentration of skin pigment within the inner ear — “cochlear melanocytes” — seems to preserve the ability to hear well in later life.
But the real good news is that hearing aids are no longer an extravagance. As you may know, these handy devices have been priced sky-high for decades. Now, affordable hearing aids may be purchased without a prescription, allowing many more people to enjoy their benefits. A law established as part of the FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017 directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create a category of OTC hearing aids for adults with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. It’s been a long time comin’! As of mid-October, 2022, over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are available online and in retail stores. No medical exam or fitting by an audiologist is required. These devices are regulated as medical devices, and may be covered by your health insurance, depending on your specific plan.
Los Angeles-based life coach Renee Featherstone has dedicated her passion, her life, and her healing practice to “helping people to change their lives for the better.” This includes her work as a licensed hearing aid specialist.
Renee says, “Life coaching can take a l-o-o-o-ng time to yield results. Helping someone to hear can change their life in a matter of minutes.”
She explains: “Hearing loss usually happens gradually. So much so that the person with hearing loss barely notices. There is also the element of denial. They don’t want to confront their hearing loss, because it makes them feel old. They become defensive. They say, ‘Oh, I hear fine, but she, or he, mumbles,’ thus displacing the source of the problem. But here’s the nitty-gritty. Nothing makes you feel older, or seem older to others, than having to constantly lean in and say ‘Huh? What? What did you say? Could you please repeat that?’”
Renee Featherstone’s advice: after age 55, certainly after age 60, have your hearing tested annually. Generally, Medicare supplements will cover the test and the recommended devices.
She also cautions against the new wave of over-the-counter hearing aids which may seem like such a godsend. Featherstone explains, “Most of these are just amplifiers. Hearing is actually more nuanced than that, so have your hearing tested, then decide.”
If you or a friend or loved one is experiencing hearing loss, here are some links to organizations which may be helpful: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/hearingloss/links.html
Today’s new devices are sleek and powerful, like the women who wear them.
THE ELITE (Expensive)
- Consumer reports identify the PHONAK Audéo LUMITY as the Mercedes of the new fleet of devices. The reason: strongest Bluetooth connection. OK, still not cheap. The national average price for the LUMITY is $6,213 per pair. You can save 25%-40% by working with ZipHearing to get care through a local clinic or Yes Hearing to get care from a professional who comes to your home. These third-party interfaces offer the same package for most brands in this price range, so check them out before buying.
- Also gets high scores: OTICON MORE, because it’s rechargeable and offers hands-free calling via iPhone (pair with almost any cell phone), and audio streaming via Android. Artificial intelligence used to engineer this device creates a natural sound landscape rather than simply suppressing background noise.
- OMNIA gets good marks for crisp, clean sound in even the loudest environments, with hands-freecalling for iPhone and iPad. The small, behind-the-ear style is modern and discreet.
- STARKEY EVOLV AI CUSTOM offers invisible and custom-molded devices in both in-the-ear and behind-the-ear styles. Super-small and versatile, with optional features like fitness tracking and virtual assistant.
- SIGNIA STYLETTO is for the bougie fashionista, no doubt. Elegant, minimalist design. Uses motion detection to direct the sound capture, in a cute lil Airpod-like charging case.
THE MERELY AWESOME (Economical)
- JABRA ENHANCE. This is a hybrid, behind-the-ear device, and you connect with a hearing professional via your computer to program the device to match your level of hearing. Price ranges from $1,195 per pair to $1,995 per pair, depending upon your choice of battery.
- COSTCO’s KIRKLAND BRAND. Yup, Costco is not just for stocking up on a lifetime supply of hot sauce or that hundred-roll pack of TP. Rechargeable, custom-programmed by Costco technicians in-store.
- AUDICUS, dubbed the “Warby Parker” of hearing aids. (If you don’t know what that means, ask your grandchildren.) This brand is considered the OG of remote programming and direct-to-consumer shipping, and they’ve been in the space for a decade. The brand uses telehealth — video consultation — to help you find the right fit. Many styles, both inside-the-ear and behind-the-ear, ranging from $499-$899 per ear.
We have to give a special shout-out to AUDICUS because in a brilliant marketing move, they’ve teamed with Ari Seth Cohen, the photographic genius behind the books and videos of Advanced Style and Advanced Love. Cohen’s photographs of people (especially women) over the age of 50 bring such joy and, well, audacity to the experience of being in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and…? decades of life. And Cohen’s recent collaboration with AUDICUS to create the Advanced Style x Audicus Collection is simply the bomb. Hot pink glitter? Leopard spots? Polka dots? Hologram? Yes, ma’am, now the hearing aid is a luxe accessory.
- BOSE WITH LEXIE CARE. Self-fit, using an innovative app for DIY fit, program and control. No Bluetooth feature, simple to use if you are at ease with smartphone tech. Behind-the-ear style, choice of disposable or rechargeable batteries. Affordable at $849 – $999 per pair. Not per ear, per PAIR.
EARGO. New to the market, invisible, rechargeable. The patented tip looks like a pinecone, and thus is a little freaky at first– but actually, the flexible petals (versus a hard plug) of the earpiece give you a custom-fit and allow cooling air-flow into your ear do you don’t sweat it.