Hearing loss is commonly associated with aging; in fact, one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has some degree of hearing loss. Above age 75, roughly half of people have hearing problems. However, hearing loss can affect people of all ages, whether it’s due to genetics, noise exposure, or something environmental. And in most cases, the problem comes on so gradually that at first, it isn’t even noticeable.
How, then, do you know if you need a hearing test? First of all, if you’re over age 50, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends that you get your hearing screened every three years. An objective test is, of course, the gold standard. But there are also some common symptoms that might indicate the early stages of hearing loss.
One of the earliest signs of hearing loss is increased difficulty in noisy environments. Have you ever been at a restaurant with your spouse, and found yourself unable to understand what they were saying to you because the noise from the other tables was interfering? Some restaurants really are just that noisy. If you’re having trouble and your spouse isn’t, though, you may have a hearing impairment.
Why does this occur? There are two primary explanations. One is that the most common type of hearing loss affects high-pitched sounds first. High pitched sounds include things like birds chirping, microwaves beeping, and that clicking sound your turn signal makes. They also include some of the most important sounds of speech: consonant sounds. In particular, unvoiced consonant sounds, which include “s,” “f,” and “th,” are the first ones to go when you develop high-frequency hearing loss, and in noisy environments, they’re even more likely to get lost. When you start missing a lot of crucial sounds, it can be hard to tell what people are saying.
Meanwhile, all those other tables at the restaurant are creating a loud dull roar, which is low in pitch, so you’re probably hearing that background noise really well. And when you can hear the background noise better than you can hear the sounds that give clarity to your spouse’s voice, no wonder you’re having trouble!
The second reason that hearing loss causes difficulty in noisy environments has to do with the way hearing loss affects the auditory system. Most people know that hearing loss means sounds have to be louder before you can hear them; fewer people realize that you also lose the ability to separate the sounds you want to hear from the sounds you don’t. The little sensory cells in your inner ear are very finely tuned to distinguish one sound from another, but as they become damaged, they lose this ability, and sounds begin to seem mushy and unclear. Oftentimes, especially if you have a history of loud noise exposure, this problem is the first sign that you’re developing a hearing problem.
I can hear, it’s just that people mumble!
Even in quiet environments, once you develop enough hearing loss in the high frequencies, speech becomes unclear. You may notice that people’s voices are plenty loud enough, but you still can’t quite make out what they’re saying to you. Or, you may misunderstand often enough that it’s become something of a joke in your family. Sound familiar? This is caused by the same problem we already discussed in the first section: missing high-frequency consonant sounds.
Let’s talk about an important distinction in speech sounds. You probably already know vowels (A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y – remember elementary school?) and consonants. More important where hearing is concerned is the distinction between voiced and unvoiced sounds. Vowels are voiced, meaning your vocal cords are vibrating in order to produce that sound. So are many consonant sounds: think about how you produce “m,” “r,” or “l.” Sounds that you use your voice to produce are louder, lower, and easier to hear. Unvoiced sounds are just air: “f,” “s,” “p,” “k,” etcetera. These are softer, higher, and harder to hear even if you have normal hearing, and when you have high-frequency hearing loss, they can get lost entirely.
Now, let’s look at some words: Cat, fat, sat, pat, hat. They all have pretty different meanings, wouldn’t you agree? If you can’t tell one from another, you’ll have a hard time knowing what people are talking about. But the sounds that allow you to tell them apart are those soft, high unvoiced consonant sounds! Reduce all those words to a, a, a, a, a, and you’ll see why you have trouble.
This isn’t to say that hearing loss means you’ll never hear these sounds. But even early-stage hearing loss means missing some of these sounds, some of the time. So if you’re noticing that people seem to mumble more than they used to, or you’re often mishearing what people say, it might be time to get your hearing checked.
You’re more fatigued, especially after social events
Another sign of hearing loss is increased fatigue after being in situations that require a lot of listening. Social events, which include a lot of conversation, are a prime example. Why would hearing loss make these events tiring? Let’s return to those similar words from earlier: cat, fat, sat, pat, and hat. If you aren’t able to easily hear the difference between these words, you’ll have to fill in the blanks using contextual cues. It’s extra work for your brain, and sometimes you’ll still get it wrong and have to revise what you think you heard: for example, your friend Mary tells you that she just got a new hat. Great, you think. But then she tells you she named it Fluffy.
Now you’ve got to go back and revise that sentence because she actually told you she got a cat, not a hat, and figuring that out twice was twice as much work for your brain. This all happens in an instant, but over the course of a day, the increased cognitive load can be substantial – and exhausting!
You catch yourself turning the TV up louder than you used to
One of the most common reasons people cite for visiting an audiologist is that their spouse is complaining about the TV volume being up too high. Does this sound familiar? Don’t just ignore
these complaints! It might not just be a grouchy spouse, it might be an early sign of hearing loss, and it’s important to get it tested and treated if so.
If any of these scenarios are ringing a bell for you, the first step is to get your hearing checked. A great place to start is our online hearing test! Click here to take the test.