On average, it takes patients seven years to get hearing aids after the first signs of hearing loss. The audiologists at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery are trying to change that.
By Geoffrey Waring
“Oh yeah. Yeah, definitely. Wait, what?”
“What? Could you repeat that?”
If you find yourself feeling tired after parties or family gatherings, struggling to hear details in noisy environments, or relying on visual cues and other senses to make heads or tails of a conversation, you may be dealing with hearing loss.
October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and the audiologists at the USC Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC want you to come in for a hearing check.
Kristina Rousso, AuD, an audiologist with the department, spoke with me about the growing crisis of hearing loss in the United States.
“One of the difficult things we are seeing is that teenagers, younger and younger, are coming in with hearing loss because they’re wearing their earbuds significantly longer and they’re not following the recommendations to turn them down,” Dr. Rousso explained. “So we are seeing hearing loss in kids at different frequencies than we have ever seen, noise exposure hearing loss, and then we are also seeing it much sooner.”
Dr. Rousso believes that everyone should come in for an annual hearing check, starting at a young age, in the same way that many people routinely go to the optometrist to get their eyes examined. This is because there are steps that can be taken to preserve hearing if hearing loss is caught in its early stages—and many people who suffer from the early stages of hearing loss do not even know that there’s a problem.
“Right now it is taking about seven years for people who are identified with hearing loss to come back and get hearing aids,” Dr. Rousso said. “But within that seven years that hearing loss remains and can even get worse.”
The reason has to do with the brain. Protecting the physical instruments in the ear (for example, by turning down the music or wearing earplugs at loud concerts) is important, but just as important is preserving the neurological function of hearing in the brain.
“It’s like a muscle,” Dr. Rousso said. “It’s use it or lose it.”
If the “door” to the brain, the ears, are shut via impaired hearing, then the brain forgets how to hear. In this way, if people do not get hearing aids when hearing loss is still at an early stage, their ability to hear and communicate can get worse—and later, it will not get better, even if they use hearing aids at that time.
Many of the barriers that prevent people from getting hearing aids to protect and preserve their hearing revolve around stigma and cost. The USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery is working to overcome those barriers for many people.
For one, the program in the department is “unbundled,” which means that patients are only charged for the hearing technology or services they use. Many other treatment centers charge flat fees for a host of services, whether they use them or not. The result is significantly more affordable hearing aids that are accessible for everyone.
“Hearing technology is always advancing,” said Dr. Rousso. “Thankfully, hearing aids come in all different shapes and sizes now, so the good news is that at every price point you can get the model or style you’re looking for.”
That leads to overcoming the second barrier that prevents people from taking care of their hearing at an early stage: stigma. Many people are embarrassed about their hearing loss, and picture bulky or unattractive hearing aids. But technology has advanced, and there are now a wide range of hearing aids at every price point.
“They’re much smaller, much sleeker, you can get them in your ear, you can get a very thin, tiny wire where you barely see it behind your ear,” said Dr. Rousso. “So I think there have been huge strides with design.”
Even if patients do not notice hearing loss or are reluctant to wear hearing aids, an annual hearing screening with an audiologist is a good idea. At Keck Medicine of USC, audiologists perform very comprehensive hearing tests to establish a baseline, so hearing can be monitored over time. This is vital for monitoring an individual patient’s hearing loss over time, so that the best treatments and recommendations can be made in the future.
Although Dr. Rousso recommends everyone get annual hearing tests regardless of noticeable hearing loss, she says that it is especially important if you are noticing some of the warning signs of the early stages of hearing loss.
“Hearing fatigue is a key indicator,” she said. “If you notice you’re feeling tired after being in a noisy environment—if you’re at a restaurant, a party, a family gathering, a big group—and you’re constantly straining to hear, not able to focus as much, that can be one of the signs that you’re having listening fatigue, where your brain is having to work significantly harder and having to use your other senses to get you the information you were previously getting with your hearing.”
“It’s especially important to come in for a hearing test if you’re noticing hearing fatigue,” she emphasized.
While hearing loss is increasing—and showing up in people at much younger ages—the good news is that hearing technology is advancing.
“There are so many advances in hearing technology all the time,” said Dr. Rousso. “There are hearing aids, of course, and then the variety of styles for different types and levels of hearing loss. Individual ability to control the devices through apps for your phone and ways to adjust your headphone settings so that you are notified if you are listening at safe or dangerous hearing levels.”
Dr. Rousso feels excited for the future of hearing loss treatments and hearing preservation.
“It’s an exciting time to be an audiologist.”
To learn more about hearing and balance care at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, click here.