January 24, 2010

USA: Is everyone mumbling?

. DETROIT, Michigan / Detroit Free Press / Life / Health / January 24, 2010 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL ADVISER Is everyone mumbling? Question: Lately, I've been having trouble understanding my coworkers and my wife when they talk to me. I'm starting to get self-conscious about constantly asking people to repeat themselves. Could I have a hearing problem? Answer: Everyone experiences hearing loss from time to time. Common causes of temporary hearing loss are tightly packed earwax, ear infections and the ear-popping sensation that bothers air passengers during takeoff. A mild degree of hearing loss is common with aging. But for many people, hearing loss can be more serious. The ear is remarkably complex and is vulnerable to a wide variety of problems. There are three major types of hearing loss: conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss and mixed hearing loss, a combination of the first two. • Conductive hearing loss is caused by anything that prevents sound waves from reaching the inner ear. Common examples include an accumulation of earwax in the ear canal and fluid in the middle ear. Other causes are bony over-growths, inflammation of the external ear and blockage caused by the material that some people use in a misguided attempt to clean their ears. This type of hearing loss affects mainly low-frequency sounds. Medical treatment can often restore hearing. • Sensorineural hearing loss results from problems with the inner ear. The most common cause is aging; others include noise, smoking, diabetes, certain medications, skull trauma, nerve tumors and hereditary. If you experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss that comes on abruptly without apparent cause, see a doctor immediately. In this case, hearing loss may be caused by a viral infection and must be treated promptly to prevent permanent hearing loss. If hearing loss is affecting your everyday life, see an audiologist to have your hearing evaluated. A hearing test measures the softest tone you can hear in decibels (dB). If you can't hear sounds softer than 45 to 60 dB, you have moderate hearing loss. Audiologists will also measure your speech reception threshold, which is the lowest decibel level at which you can hear and repeat half the words spoken to you. Finally, they will measure your speech discrimination. This test evaluates your ability to hear the difference between similarly sounding words, like someday and Sunday. Understandably, many people don't like to wear hearing aids. But they are a great help, especially for people whose main problem is volume. Sophisticated electronics have reduced (but not eliminated) problems of feedback, interference and whistling that plagued older devices. All of these advances, however, come at a high price. A digital hearing set may cost between $1,000 and $4,000 per ear. Simple things will make your life easier. Use an amplified telephone and assist devices at plays, movies and religious services. Consider getting a flashing light hooked up to your telephone, doorbell and smoke alarms. Plan meetings away from competing sounds and have conversations face to face. Hearing loss can be socially uncomfortable and frustrating, but remember that more than 29 million Americans share your difficulty. You shouldn't be shy about asking people to slow down and speak clearly. And if simple steps don't do the trick, don't be embarrassed about getting professional help. [rc] Website: http://www.health.harvard.edu/adviser E-Mail: Harvard-adviser@hms.harvard.edu. Copyright © 2010 Detroit Free Press