Anyone who has struggled to follow a conversation or hear a phone call knows that hearing loss feels like more than a physical ailment; it’s an emotional one, too. Hearing loss can be a frustrating, discouraging experience. Even composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who famously began to lose his hearing in his mid-20s, wrote that he felt humiliated when others could hear music or voices in the distance that he could not.

While most of us will never have to face the extreme struggles that Beethoven did, many of us will lose some hearing ability as we age. One in three Americans over the age of 65 has some degree of hearing loss, making it a common experience for millions. But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable — or that its symptoms have to be accepted as a fact of life. In fact, seeking out help for hearing loss can have far-reaching positive effects that ripple outward to protect both physical and mental health.

When to ask for help

A person has serious hearing loss when they struggle to hear a volume of about 40 decibels (dB) in their better ear, or around the level of a quiet conversation, according to the journal The Gerontologist. Dr. Maggie McCarthy of Albany ENT offers some real-life examples: “If you feel like people mumble, you misunderstand things, or struggle to hear when others around you don’t seem to be struggling, you should find an audiologist near you and get a baseline audiogram,” she writes in an email. Needing to turn up the volume on the television or radio can be another sign. Even if you haven’t noticed any symptoms, many health care providers recommend a baseline hearing test for everyone at age 60, with follow-up tests every few years.

It’s not just that hearing loss can sneak up on you — there’s another obstacle that prevents people from accessing treatment. “Hearing loss can trigger a lot of negative emotions,” McCarthy notes. “People often have preconceived notions about hearing aids or tie age to hearing loss, even though hearing aids have changed tremendously over the past 10 years and people of all ages experience hearing loss.” 

According to The Lancet, it’s common to hide hearing challenges because of unfair stigma. In other words, it can feel a bit embarrassing. These emotions are normal, but having a tough time hearing doesn’t mean you’re losing your edge — it’s a common, treatable medical condition. In reality, the greatest danger of hearing loss is hiding it. People who conceal their hearing issues often isolate themselves, which can damage relationships, trigger mental health problems, and even contribute to dementia. On the other hand, improved hearing helps with a surprising range of things including balance, learning ability, and focus.

Prevention and treatment

Prevention is the best medicine for hearing loss, especially for those whose jobs involve constant noise, like industrial workers, mechanics, and military personnel. Over time, even sounds that don’t seem very loud can cause damage, which is why occupational hearing protection is so important. But loud noises aren’t the only causes of hearing loss — genetics, viruses, nutritional deficiencies, and even head trauma can contribute.

Once hearing is damaged, there’s usually no way to repair nerves and complex mechanisms inside the ear. The good news, though, is that treatment can be highly effective. Hearing aids, once bulky and temperamental, have developed into sleek, high-tech devices. For some people, cochlear implant surgery can be life-changing, and new devices and procedures are being developed all the time.

But some of the best strategies are decidedly low-tech. The University of North Carolina’s Hearing and Communication Center suggests taking time to consider the environment when planning a gathering. A well-lit place with minimal background noise will help everyone enjoy the conversation. If you feel comfortable, tell the people around you how best to talk to you, such as sitting on a particular side. Don’t be afraid to ask those around you to speak more slowly or repeat themselves. Then, listen actively by asking questions to make sure you’ve understood. And above all, try to keep a sense of humor about the situation.

Hearing loss can feel scary, but even the most serious impairment can be managed with the right strategies. After all, Beethoven composed his famous 9th Symphony when he was 56 years old, after three decades of struggling with his hearing — and we’ve come a long way since then.

Healthy Hearing Tips

Want to keep your hearing tip-top? Dr. Maggie McCarthy of Albany ENT suggests the following:

  • Wear hearing protection when exposed to hazardous noise, such as using power tools or mowing the lawn.
  • Get a baseline audiogram.
  • If you think accumulating earwax might be an issue, have your ears cleaned regularly by your primary care physician or an ear, nose and throat specialist.

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