Hearing loss — missing parts of a conversation or turning up the sound on the television — can be more than just an unfortunate part of aging.
“Scientific evidence is now beginning to surface associating hearing loss with poorer cognitive functioning and dementia,” says Deborah Rieks, AuD, one of Cedar Valley Medical Specialists (CVMS)’ two audiologists. “Hearing loss may be a risk factor for falls. Patients with diabetes have a significantly higher prevalence of hearing loss than those without diabetes.”
Audiologists are trained to diagnose, manage and treat hearing and balance problems for persons of all ages, including newborns. Rieks practices within Dr. David Congdon’s Cedar Valley Center for Hearing, located at United Medical Park on West Ridgeway Avenue in Waterloo.
A study published by the National Council on Aging found that hearing loss affects all aspects of life that depend on the ability to communicate with other people. It affects how we relate to family and friends, how we perform our jobs, how we are able to lead productive lives, and how we maintain our health through social connections.
“Benefits of treating hearing loss include improved relationships at home, giving people a sense of independence, feeling more socially engaged, and even unlocking earning potential — hearing your best helps you do your best at work,” Rieks says.
“We do know that when you have a hearing loss you are spending a lot more time on lower-level cognitive processing. You are working so hard at hearing what people are saying that the higher cognitive processes may not be exercised. One study has shown that as we get older, our brains actually shrink. The parts of the brain that are responsible for speech and language have atrophied or shrunk more in the hearing-impaired.
“The cochlea (our organ of hearing) is very vulnerable to a lack of oxygen or a lack of good nutrients,” she says. Researchers are linking our hearing to cardiovascular, neural and metabolic health. “We also live in a noisy world, making our ears work harder. Sudden hearing loss is also on the rise. One third of those with sudden hearing loss just wake in the morning with hearing loss.
“If this happens to you, you want to be treated immediately, within the first two weeks,” she adds, “for the best chance of getting your hearing back.”
Audiologists also treat tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, which often is correlated to hearing loss. Rieks says hearing aids can help bring in background noise that mask the ringing to a certain extent. There are many apps for smartphones that stream into hearing aids, providing nature sounds. “People are getting some relief,” she says.
The electronic circuitry of today’s hearing aids has advanced significantly over the last few years. The aids are getting smaller and thus more cosmetically appealing and more comfortable.
“Digital hearing aids are working over thousands of times per second sampling the environment,” she adds. “They are designed so that soft sounds are amplified enough to be heard while loud sounds are heard but do not sound uncomfortably loud.”
She says most of her patients tend to be older, “although they are getting younger. Today’s youth have had much more experience with technology. If there is something out there that is going to make their lives easier, they’re more readily seeking help.”
Technology of course is changing at lightning-speed, and hearing aids are no exception. In the past, a new product would appear on the market every three or four years.
“Now it’s every three to four months,” Rieks says. “Today’s smart hearing aids can be controlled by your smartphone — adjusting volume, changing programs, or locating a misplaced hearing aid. You can make phone calls or video calls with clear, feedback-free voices that are streamed directly to the hearing aids.”
One of the newest trends in audiology is incorporating more-inclusive rehabilitation for hearing aid users.
“We’re finding that keeping the brain active will help improve listening in noise and the kind of auditory processing that needs to take place with hearing aids,” Rieks says. “Counseling can be a major part of hearing aid acceptance and obtaining maximum benefits. Understanding that your biggest difficulty may be in a noisy environment, you will miss (hearing) some things.
“The audiologist is a key component,” Rieks adds. “Someone that you trust, someone who is going to listen to you, someone who will treat your hearing loss with more than just a medical device.”