Difficulty following conversations. Repetitiveness. Withdrawal from social interaction. If you read last week’s blog, you might think we’re talking about dementia again. But we’re not. We’re talking about recognizing hearing loss in seniors.
This can be tricky, because as you’ll see, age-related hearing loss often presents with similar symptoms to early dementia.
What causes hearing loss in seniors in the first place?
Good question. The medical term for age-related hearing loss is presbycusis. According to the NIH, it’s usually caused by damage to the hair cells of the inner ear or to the auditory nerve. Sometimes this is a natural result of aging, just like anything else. It can also occur as the result of prolonged exposure to loud noises like construction work or drilling. And often it’s a combination of both: You have an older adult over the age of 65 whose hair cells have weakened with age, and then a construction project goes up on their block.
If my older parent becomes hard of hearing, shouldn’t it be obvious?
Actually, no. One of the signature characteristics of age-related hearing loss is that it’s very, very gradual. So gradual, in fact, that most people don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s one of the reasons that the symptoms can be mistaken for signs of early dementia.
So how do you know the difference? Well, the easiest way is to have your loved one do a hearing test. This can be easier said than done, though, because your loved one might be a) unaware that their hearing isn’t as sharp as it used to be, or b) very aware that their hearing isn’t what it used to be, and also very afraid to admit it.
One way to get around that problem is not to mention hearing loss at all. Instead, the next time you discuss medical appointments, say something like, “Dad, I see you’re up-to-date on all your checkups except for your hearing. Is it time for a routine appointment?” If your loved one lives in a skilled nursing community, you can even ask that the suggestion come from the medical staff there, rather than from you.
Now that you know what to do, let’s talk about how to see if your parent really is suffering from hearing loss. But before we list the symptoms you should be on the lookout for, it’s important to understand one last thing about age-related hearing loss:
Presbycusis doesn’t cause sound to be muffled. It causes sound to be distorted.
So it’s not that Mom or Dad can’t hear that you’re talking. It’s that they can’t understand what you’re saying. Keep this in mind when you get to symptom #6.
9 Symptoms of Hearing Loss in Seniors
- Your loved one complains of tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears).
- They often ask you to repeat yourself during conversation.
- Withdrawal from or reluctance to participate in social events like family get-togethers and cocktail parties, where there’s a lot of ambient noise.
- They respond to questions with answers that show they didn’t understand what they were asked.
- Their comments during conversation begin to be off-topic.
- They do okay in face-to-face conversations but have difficulty understanding what’s being said over the phone.
- They have trouble hearing higher-pitched sounds like children’s voices, but can hear the rumbling of a truck or a plane with no problem.
- Your loved one complains of dizziness or loss of appetite.
- They complain that no one around them is talking clearly – “why is everyone mumbling?”
If Mom, Dad or Great-Grandma are presenting with any of these symptoms, it’s time to make an appointment.
Have you had experience identifying hearing loss in seniors you love? Let us know in the comments below.