The Official SoundScape Weblog

The Official SoundScape Weblog

Ears to Hear

Who Pays the Cost of Hearing Loss?

     In life there are things called externalities – these are the costs people pay for someone else’s actions, or the costs we all have to pay for a few people’s actions. For example, if a company pours their untreated waste into a river it affects everyone downstream (while the company saves money), or when I drive my car that pollutes the environment it affects all of us who breathe the air. When it comes to untreated hearing loss it is not just the person with the loss who is affected by it. All those around them also pay a price for that persons hearing loss. They all bear the cost – some more than others.


     It may cost frustration; it may be anger. It may be a loss of friendship, or not being able to enjoy social activities together. Some people are even pushed into the role of being the ears for the person with loss – having to constantly repeat what other people say. This can be very stressful and draining.


     We need to acknowledge the cost untreated hearing loss has on others. Learn to recognize how someone else’s hearing loss is affecting you. Or, if you are the one with the hearing loss, recognize how your actions are affecting others and ask yourself if it is fair to ask someone else pay the emotional and social cost of your hearing loss. I know hearing aids aren’t cheap, but there are many options including options for those who truly can’t afford hearing aids. It’s about priorities. If a person doesn’t value their hearing as much as they value other things, they shouldn’t ask others to pay the costs.


     If you know someone who has a hearing loss and you want them to do something about that loss, there is one thing you can do which can be very effective. Stop letting the person with the hearing loss transfer their coping with that loss to you. Don’t be their ears, don’t repeat yourself any more than you would to a person with normal hearing (remember nobody hears everything all the time so a little repetition is normal). At the very least, have a signal like “you’re having trouble hearing”, that you say to that person every time they ask you to repeat yourself, or when you are being asked to be their ears.  This may sound a bit harsh, and you need to have a decent relationship with the person to do this, but it can be a very effective way to get a person with hearing loss to understand how their refusal to seek treatment is affecting others. Often people just don’t realize how much of an impact – how much of a cost – their hearing loss is having on others.

Can Anything Be Done About the Ringing in My Ears?

     Many people ask me if there is anything that can be done about the ringing, buzzing, or other various forms of distortion they hear. The first thing I tell them is that most people with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) have hearing loss and the ringing is a side effect of the hearing damage. As mentioned in a previous post concerning tinnitus over 90% of people, when put in an nearly silent anti-echo chamber, will hear ringing in their ears. This means that most of us have it in our heads, but just don’t hear it most of the time.


     I don’t have tinnitus, however I have a pair of very good hearing protection earmuffs.  I have to wear ear bud headphones underneath so I can listen to music while wearing them, otherwise I start to hear so much noise in my head I can’t stand it. Having even a minor hearing loss is like wearing earplugs and can cut out enough sound that a person’s brain can start to make up other noises to replace the sound that is missing. For most people that’s what their tinnitus is and so for most people the first thing to do is address the hearing loss.


     I found this short little recorded piece, Tinnitus: Why Won’t My Ears Stop Ringing? on It does a good job of succinctly explaining tinnitus and what some of the means of dealing with tinnitus are. One solution it mentions is white noise. In the last year many hearing aid manufacturers have come out with hearing aids that have built in tinnitus masking programs. These can produce varied types of white noise that can neutralize or minimize the ringing. For most people their tinnitus never goes away completely, but the goal is to minimize the tinnitus so that they just don’t pay attention to it and are usually not conscious of its presence.


     For those who don’t have hearing loss, or if hearing aids do not solve the problem, there are other medical issues that may need to be addressed such as high blood pressure. Two supplements have been showed to help tinnitus – Arches Tinnitus Formula and Quietus. And as the NPR piece mentions there are other methods of addressing possible improper brain function.

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia Care

     In previous posts I’ve talked about the negative effects of hearing loss, one being the link between hearing loss and dementia. In this post I’d like to highlight one means of treating dementia and Alzheimer’s, which is music therapy. I recently read an article, Music as Therapy: A 5-Note Plan for Caregiver Calm,  which does a great job of explaining the benefits in a clear and concise manner. Here is an excerpt:


     "Since music is associated with one of the five senses — hearing —which is controlled by the brain, it makes sense we should exercise our brains with music listening to spur cognitive function in the same way we use physical therapy to exercise our limbs, muscles and joints to regain mobility and physical function."


     "Studies have shown that music reduces agitation or improves behavioral issues such as violent outbursts in dementia patients.  In one pilot program, 45 patients with middle- to late-stage dementia had one hour of personalized music therapy three times a week for 10 months, and improved their scores on a cognitive-function test by 50 percent on average."


In relation to hearing loss, the benefits of music therapy cannot fully be realized if a person cannot hear. If a person has a hearing loss their brain cannot get the same cognitive stimulus (exercise) it once did. As a result cognitive function can be lost. So if a person has hearing loss the first thing they need to do is address that hearing loss if they want their brain to function as well as possible.


     One thing I’d like to highlight from this article is the first suggestion it gives for using music as therapy; something that anyone can do.


"Discover the “happy times tunes”: Talk to your loved one about happy times in their life and understand the music associations with that time are essential to their sense of happiness.  Whether it is big band, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, country, opera or blues, find out what tunes make your parent or spouse smile.  Most older loved ones, especially Alzheimer’s patients who retain long-term memory as opposed to short-term memory, find tunes from their youth the most joyful."


     I’d also like to highlight an organization in Southern Oregon that performs Music Therapy. I serve on the board of a non-profit called Heart and Hope Music, which is “a charitable, non-profit which provides a therapeutic, life-enriching musical program of Love, Hope, Comfort and Humor for Elders and Those With Special Needs.” I got involved with this organization for a couple of reasons. First, Donny Roze, who is the music therapist, knows an immense amount of songs, especially old folk and pop songs so he is able to play the “happy times tunes” that are important to elders. He is also very engaging and humorous. However what he does is not simply entertainment, Donny does an incredible job of involving people in the music. It’s not a show; his therapy sessions are very participatory and draw people out physically and mentally, which is important for getting the maximum benefit from music therapy.


     I would encourage everyone to help support the work of music therapists like Donny Roze in whatever way possible. Find out more at

The Dangers of Ignoring Hearing Loss

     Many people ignore their hearing loss and its effects because they assume that it is a natural part of aging. It is often assumed that a mild or moderate hearing loss doesn’t really have much of an effect upon a person. Even people with severe hearing loss reckon that it’s easier, and cheaper, to just live with a hearing loss.  


     A 1999 report by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) entitled The Consequences of Untreated Hearing Loss in Older Persons, found that adults with untreated hearing impairment were more likely to experience the following:


"embarrassment, fatigue, irritability, tension and stress, anger, avoidance of social activities, withdrawal from social situations, depression, negativism, danger to personal safety, rejection by others, reduced general health, loneliness, social isolation, less alertness to the environment, impaired memory, less adaptability to learning new tasks, paranoia, reduced coping skills, and reduced overall psychological health."


This study shows that even those things which may be attributed to the natural process of aging such as “reduced general health”, “fatigue” and “impaired memory” will more likely and more significantly impact  those with untreated hearing loss.


     The psychological and emotional effects of untreated hearing loss can be devastating to a person’s quality of life, especially the damaging effects it can have upon our relationships. Hellen Keller articulated this better than anyone when she said,


"I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus – the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."


In short, the loneliness which afflicts so many seniors, and the self-imposed isolation of some, may really be the result of an untreated hearing loss.


     It has also been demonstrated that there is a link between hearing loss and dementia( The link is not yet clearly understood, but one thing is clear: an untreated hearing loss worsens the effects of cognitive decline. Those who have dementia function better when their hearing loss is treated; in fact, some symptoms which may be attributed to dementia may merely be the effects of miscommunication caused by an untreated hearing loss.


     Often when a person finally feels it is time to do something about their hearing loss the effects cannot be fully reversed and what can be reversed takes more effort than they expected. This is why so many seniors complain about noisy situations, where background noise makes it difficult for them to hear the person they are trying so hard to hear. They have lost some of their ability to tune out the background noise and focus upon the person they are trying to hear. They have not only lost the ability to hear sound in a normal way, they have lost some of their brain’s ability to process sound, because they have gone so long without hearing those sounds in a normal way. So, if you or someone you know has a hearing loss the sooner that loss is treated the greater the benefit and the easier the adjustment will be.


     In order to maintain our optimal health it is vital that we remain physically active as well as mentally and socially active. In order to stay active it is important that we hear as well as possible. Those who know they have a hearing loss, but feel it is not yet “bad enough” to get hearing aids often do not notice or understand the gradual way in which their hearing loss affects them. They do not notice the price their inaction is costing them.

Hear for the Holidays

     It is easy for those with good hearing to take their hearing for granted. At this time of year most people aren’t stressing over family gatherings and holiday parties, considering avoiding them all together, because of a hearing loss. We might be stressed, but it’s not because we are worried about the discomfort, embarrassment, or feelings of being left out that a hearing loss can cause. And not knowing what it’s like to live with hearing loss we often forget to practice good communication skills with those who having hearing loss; we may even get annoyed and angry at those who struggle to hear us. (Of course if they refuse to do anything about their hearing loss we may have good reason to be annoyed and angry.)


     A few years ago I suffered a temporary hearing loss as a result of sitting to close to a speaker at a rock concert. I could hear just fine in quiet one-on-one situations; in noisy large group situations I could barely understand anything anyone said to me. I remember going to a party and not being able to take part in a single conversation. I couldn’t enjoy my time with my friends; it was nearly pointless for me to be there. Nobody got mad at me, and people tried talking to me so I could hear, but it didn’t matter – I was left out. My hearing recovered, but if it hadn’t I know that I would never want to go to any large group situation again. I would have withdrawn from a lot of situations and avoided many social gatherings. And if I did have to go to something there’s no way I’d be able to enjoy it.


     So this holiday season please be considerate of those with hearing loss. Even if they have hearing aids they will still most likely not have normal hearing and won’t be able to hear as well as they used to. Of course, even people with normal hearing don’t hear everything and struggle when background noise gets too loud, but a person with hearing loss will not be able to tolerate as much background noise. The two things you can do that will help a person with hearing loss the most is to look at them when you talk to them and to slow down. You usually don’t have to talk louder, just slower.


     If you see a friend and family member struggling in noisy or group situations, or they withdraw or avoid these situations all together this may be one of the first signs they have a hearing loss. The most common hearing loss is a noise induced hearing loss. A person with this type of loss may still be able to hear lower frequency sounds as well as ever, but cannot hear those higher frequency sounds  which are the most important for understanding speech.  This means they can hear people talk and may understand people with lower voices without much problem, but will struggle to understand women’s and children’s voices. It also means that they may do just fine in quiet one on one situations, but will struggle in noisy situations. 


     Finally, if your friend or family member, or you, are not enjoying social situations because of an inability to understand what is being said it may be time to consider hearing aids.

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