written for Woman’s Day

It took me years to admit I had a hearing problem. Don’t make the same mistake.

I BEGAN using hearing aids in both ears two years ago, just before my 44th birthday and 15 years after a doctor first recommended I get them. My hearing had deteriorated gradually since childhood, but I still refused to accept the extent of my problem. I felt I was too young to wear them, and I didn’t want to be labeled handicapped. That was someone else, not me. Now I realize it was vanity that kept me struggling for so long.

For years, the fact that everyone around me seemed to be mumbling used to madden me a half-dozen times a day. It was as if the world had turned down the volume. Driving my daughters, Annie and Elizabeth, to school, I could not hear their soft voices in the backseat. My husband, Nat, often answers “Yep” or “Nope,” which always sounded almost identical to me. Supermarket clerks frequently had to repeat, twice, the amount I owed. A co-worker at the newspaper where I used to work once yelled right across the newsroom, “Woodside, you’re so deaf!” When I went home that night, I cried.

Whether hearing loss strikes suddenly or gradually, it carries a stigma for many people. Doctors tell stories about spouses dragging their unwilling partners to get hearing tests. Young and middle-aged women who are afflicted will deny it, as I did, for years. IN fact, of the estimated 28 million people nationwide who suffer from varying degrees of hearing loss, only 20 to 30 percent of them do anything to correct their problem.

Partial deafness (the phrase still makes me cringe) appears to be rising, especially among younger adults. Hearing loss nearly doubled from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, according to a University of California, San Francisco, study of people age 50 and older in Alameda County, California. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that about 2 million women between ages 45 and 64, and 4.2 million 65 and older, struggle with varying degrees of hearing loss.

Why We Lose Our Hearing

Today’s world is full of hazards for normal people’s ears, and all the noise only causes further damage to someone like me, who has a hearing-related medical condition. “Entertainment, traffic and road construction, it’s around you all day, every day. It takes a greater toll on some people than others” says Dean C. Garstecki, Ph.D., chairman of the communication sciences and disorders department at Northwestern University and an expert in hearing loss in older women.

More than a third of all hearing-loss cases are preventable. Some are the result of genetic problems; others are unexplained. About 50 percent of cases are due to medical conditions, including the following:
• Otosclerosis, which is my condition, begins in childhood and may intensify at puberty or during pregnancy. The three bones that amplify sound in the middle ear become fixed when spongy bone deposits accumulate.
An operation to put a prosthesis in place of the damaged bone can restore hearing for a few years, but often the bones become spongy again. Otosclerosis can spread to the inner ear, which results in nerve loss. Sometimes, this is treated with fluoride in an attempt to arrest the progress of the condition.
My otosclerosis diagnosis was first made when I was 29, but an operation to put a prosthesis into place failed. Almost a decade later, I had a successful surgery, but I still suffered from substantial hearing loss. My so-called good ear, on the left, has been afflicted with nerve loss, the cause unknown. So today the hearing in both of my ears is just about equal.
• High fevers or viruses can attack the inner ear, causing sudden and irreversible loss.
• Meniere’s disease is relatively rare. As fluid accumulates in the ear, you experience dizziness along with ringing and pressure in the ears, and hearing deteriorates.
• Sudden deafness is also a rare but often treatable affliction, if caught early. The ear feels strangely full and clogged, and hearing is muffled. In some cases, steroids, if taken soon enough, may arrest the loss.
• Wax accumulation or tumors in the ear canal can also result in hearing problems.

Seventeen years ago, Pat Rovero, then 35, of East Lyme, Connecticut, noticed that she felt dizzy while she was playing with her two toddlers at a playground. Then she started having trouble hearing her family. One day her husband said, “What are you, deaf?” And that’s when she began to worry.

Her doctor thought it was allergies, but she insisted on having a hearing test, which revealed a slight hearing loss in her left ear. A CT scan showed that a tumor was growing in her ear canal, a condition known as acoustic neuroma. The tumor, which was benign, had wrapped around her auditory nerve. She had an operation to remove it, which made her deaf in that ear.

After the surgery, she decided to start a support group for people with her affliction. Other patients had even larger tumors than hers before they were diagnosed, and some people’s faces permanently drooped, almost as if they had had a stroke. “I would say to anyone, if you detect a hearing problem, get it checked early,” Pat says.

Turn Up the Volume

Noise and aging are the biggest culprits when it comes to hearing loss. Hearing loss that is due primarily to aging may also be exacerbated by loud environmental noise, Dr. Garstecki says.

And there’s plenty to go around. Everything from the regular use of some hair dryers to listening to loud music on personal CD players or iPods is taking a toll on our hearing. “As those portable music devices came into vogue years ago, there was little concern over what the upper limit would be in terms of amplifying power,” says Dr. Garstecki.

There may also be a genetic predisposition to the effects of noise, explains Lynn Spivak, Ph.D., director of the Hearing and Speech Center at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York. “So you have two people with the same exposure and one will end up with a significant hearing loss and the other will not.”

She adds, “What’s alarming is that experts are now seeing substantial hearing loss in young teens.” Their losses are in the high frequencies, which means classic noise-related damage. Many patients admit to blasting their portable CD players.

How do you know if you are exposing your ears to damaging sound? Say that you have been to a loud rock concert, then realize afterward that it’s slightly more difficult to hear or your ears are ringing. This is called a temporary threshold shift. Your hearing ability is reduced, but it usually will recover within a few hours. But if you expose yourself to loud music on a regular, sustained basis, the resulting hearing loss may become permanent. Why? Because you’re destroying hair cells that rest in fluid in the inner ear and deliver sound messages to the brain. The problem is that those destroyed hair cells don’t grow back.

In most cases, you avoid trouble if you’re exposed to damaging noise for an hour or less. But sometimes hearing loss can occur as the result of a single incident. Eleven years ago, when Joan Power was 49, she and her husband went with friends to a law enforcement training facility near their home in Yorba Linda, California. “You go through scenarios in which you’re the police officer and actual police officers play the bad guys,” recalls Joan, who is a regional office coordinator at a national drug company. “A gun went off just behind my head, probably about six or eight feet away.”

Immediately she knew something was wrong. “Whenever people talked to me, it sounded like they were chipmunks in a Disney cartoon, just weird-sounding voices,” she says.

“Doctors detected a moderate hearing loss, but she also developed sensitivity to noise. Dry dog food hitting a bowl, children’s voices or a televised car race sound almost unbearable to her. Unfortunately, she has not adjusted well to hearing aids, which amplify even painful sounds. “I see young people driving with their car radios booming, and I always think, ‘If you only knew what you’re going to have to deal with,’ ” she says.

You Can Hear Again

Has my life improved since I got hearing aids? You have no idea. Recently I was at the dining room table with my family and it suddenly hit me: I had been conversing with them for about 45 minutes and I’d heard everything they said. I hadn’t once said, “Honey, what was that?” or “I didn’t quite catch that.” I was feeling relaxed. I was smiling. I was at peace.

Hearing aids and other hearing technology have improved dramatically over the past decade. Today, hearing aids using digital circuitry may actually detect and amplify the human voice while filtering out background noise.

Some hearing aids are so small they fit completely inside the ear canal. These smaller units accommodate mild to moderate hearing loss (under a 40-decibel loss). For moderate to severe hearing loss (like mine, about 50 decibels) aids worn behind the ear may be more appropriate. And for those who are unable to benefit from any type of conventional hearing aid, a cochlear implant may be the most helpful.

For me, the most magical experience occurred the day after I received my hearing aids. I was down in our basement about to put another load in the washer, when just above my head I heard the most beautiful music. I realized after a few minutes that I was listening to my daughter practicing her flute two floors above me. I figured that the sound was probably traveling from her heating vent down to me. I stopped what I was doing and raced upstairs to her room. “Annie, you play so beautifully!”


About This Article

This article appeared in Woman’s Day magazine on March 8, 2005. It was difficult for me to write, because I had written about my hearing loss only once before, for a regional newspaper. I wanted to help people understand that hearing deteriorates in degrees and should carry no greater stigma than does nearsightedness.

Clues That You Have Hearing Loss

  • You have to ask people to repeat what they said—two or three times.
  • Your loved ones seem to be mumbling.
  • People say that you turn up the TV or radio too high.
  • You hear words, but have trouble figuring out exactly what people are saying.
  • You have difficulty hearing people on the telephone.
  • Your ear suddenly feels clogged or full, or sounds seem muffled. This can be the beginning of sudden hearing loss. Call your doctor right away.
  • After a concert or a loud aerobics class, your ears ring, or all sound seems muffled. This will usually go away in an hour, but if you have this experience repeatedly, the damage may become permanent.
  • You find yourself always concentrating hard on people’s mouths and body language as they talk.

How to Protect Your Hearing

Experts advise you to wear earplugs if you will be exposed to noises over 90 to 95 decibels. Exposure to noises this loud can cause permanent hearing loss if it occurs on a regular basis. But damage can also result from even short exposures, though it varies from person to person. If your job is in a noisy environment, consider industrial-strength protection.

  • Foam earplugs cost a few dollars and are available at pharmacies. Used properly, they protect your ears, but sounds will be muffled.
  • Musician’s earplugs, which are more expensive and made from a mold of your ear canal, will filter out loud noises but also make it possible to hear people speaking. For information, see hearnet.com, the web site of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers.
  • Contact an audiologist. For a list of certified audiologists, see www.audiology.org.

Beware Of:

  • Portable music player set at 5 out of 10 setting: 94 decibels (dB)
  • Subway train, 200 feet away: 95 dB
  • Power mower, 107 dB
  • Symphonic music peak: 120-137 dB
  • Jackhammer, 4 feet away: 130 dB
  • Jet engine, 100 feet away: 140 dB
  • Loud rock concert: 150 dB
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