Almost 30 years ago, when Lucille Greenberg was in her early 60s, her colleagues began to complain about the messages she took for them. The phone numbers were all wrong.
With a family history of hearing loss, she knew what was happening. She bought her first set of hearing aids, but they just made sounds louder.
“Flushing a toilet sounded like Niagara Falls,” says Greenberg, a native of Long Island, N.Y.
She retired at 65, but what followed was a slow chipping away at her quality of life. For Greenberg, a World War II sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corp Women’s Reserve, hearing loss affected everything from conversations with her family to watching TV, to grocery shopping and using the phone. She bought a second set of hearing aids, and then a third set that worked better.
“I thought I was home free,” says Greenberg, who lives in The Classic, an independent and assisted living facility in West Palm Beach.
Then came further deterioration and a fourth set. Eventually an audiologist told her about the cochlear implant, a surgically implanted electronic hearing device.
“By then I was reconciled to the idea that I would spend my last years in total deafness … but this news, especially that the operation was fully covered by Medicare, was very exciting.”
On April 12, she celebrated her 90th birthday with a party given by her children and grandchildren. She had never heard her grandchildren’s voices.
“The best thing about my party … was that I could actually hear all those loving words that were said. This was truly one very happy birthday.”
For the aging, experts say, hearing loss can have more of an impact on quality of life than any other health concerns, because they affect the ability to communicate and participate in life.
Likewise, balance problems, which are often caused by problems with the vestibular system or inner ear, are a critical concern for the aging, because they increase the risk of potentially deadly falls.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), age can be a major factor in hearing loss. Eighteen percent of U.S. adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 and 47 percent of adults 75 and older suffer from hearing loss. Men are more likely to experience hearing loss than women.
“It’s the third most common ailment that people over the age of 60 have, superseded only by hypertension and arthritis,” said Dr. Sergio Guerreiro, an audiologist with the Ear Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “It’s unbelievable that hearing loss is such a large component of what happens [to the aging].”
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 percent of people over 70 experience problems with postural balance.
“We caution people,” Guerreiro says, “because one fall is all it takes to be the beginning of the end.”
The entire auditory vestibular system must be assessed to determine where the balance problem is coming from. Many aging people with balance problems are overmedicated and become dizzy.
The most common form of hearing loss is caused by the loss of sensory hair cells in the cochlea. While hearing aids and cochlear implants help, once the cells are lost, they do not regenerate. Hair cell loss can be caused by a variety of factors including aging, noise exposure, infections, some antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs.