Stop the silence: Hearing loss, which may change behavior, can be treated

Mirror photo by Patt Keith Dr. Heather Nackley checks Jennifer Wertz’s ears. Wertz, from Woodbury, was diagnosed with mixed hearing loss and now wears a wireless device. 

When Jessica Wertz, 22, found herself struggling academically in college, isolating herself from social situations and avoiding the college dining hall she took action to address the root problem — an inability to hear.

“I realized I had to do something so I could succeed in school or I’d end up failing,” the Woodbury, Bedford County resident said.

After being correctly diagnosed with mixed hearing loss, Wertz grades soared from Cs and Ds to straight As. She is now pursuing a graduate degree in deaf education so she can help others.

Local audiologists say hearing loss leads to changes in behavior including avoidance of social situations, speaking overly loudly, asking people to repeat themselves, increasing TV volumes, confusion with sound alike words and negative impacts on relationships.

Heather Nackley, a doctor of audiology, diagnosed Wertz with mixed hearing loss which consists of noise-induced or sensorineural hearing loss coupled with a conductive hearing loss — a physical malfunction in the mechanics of the ear. Wertz has a family history of hearing loss and has otosclerosis where the bones in her inner ear fused and no longer vibrate to transmit sound.

To improve her hearing, Wertz opted for hearing devices with wireless Bluetooth enabled technology. She wears sparkly, purple devices behind her ears and a bluetooth streamer she wears around her neck.

“A lot of younger people with hearing loss embrace the different colored hearing aids,” said Nackley, who practices with Lemme Audiology. “Hearing loss is nothing to be ashamed about.”

The Centers for Disease Control last year reported that one in four 20-to 69-year-olds and one in five 20-to 29-year olds have noise-induced hearing loss. This study reflected a 30 percent higher incidence of hearing loss than 25 years ago. Noise is second only to aging as a leading cause of hearing loss, said Nackley who practices with Lemme Audiology.

“Loud music has been around for generations, but listening to music through ear buds and headphones brings the sound closer to the eardrum and can be more damaging to sensitive hair cell receptors,” she said. “Because the ear buds are placed down into the ear canal, these miniature speakers result in increased sound pressure level directed toward the eardrum.”

Additionally, people use earbuds or headphones while engaged in a noisy activity, such as mowing the grass, so the volume often gets turned up to block out the equipment noise, resulting in increased risk of hearing loss, she said.

On average, Nackley sees two people in their teens or 20s with noise-induced hearing loss. She diagnosed significant hearing loss in a 13-year-old patient who used ear buds while online gaming.

Kristin Jones, a doctor of audiology who practices with Hearing Solutions at ENT Associates of Central PA, has also seen an increase of noise-induced hearing loss in younger patients.

“Children are listening to music on their phones and other devices, and are exposed to higher noise levels recreationally,” she said.

Exposure to high noise levels from mowing lawns, riding ATVs and playing in musical bands often harms hearing. Hearing damage may result from a one-time incident, such as being too close to an exploding firecracker, or from extended noise exposure, according to the American Academy of Audiologists.

“The first sign of hearing loss is often development of a noise notch on a comprehensive hearing test,” Jones said. “We are seeing signs at earlier and earlier ages.”

Signs of hearing loss include ringing in the ears, called tinnitus, asking people to repeat words, raising the volume on the television and experiencing sound as “muffled.”

‘I am seeing an increase of people choosing to use hearing aids at younger and younger ages. While no one wants to get them, eventually they do and manufacturers are making more cosmetically appealing devices,” Jones said.

Through her high school education, Wertz compensated for her hearing difficulties as her classes were smaller. Once in college, the large, auditorium classrooms filled with 200 or more students impacted her ability to follow the lessons and her frustration significantly increased. So, the 20-year-old selected her first hearing aids — the typical, skin blending beige style.

“I didn’t like hiding them,” she explained. “When they were hidden people assumed I wasn’t interested in what they were saying. They assumed I wasn’t being friendly. Now, that my aids are more visible I find people are more accommodating and willing to go to a quieter location to talk. Using hearing aids is no different than a person who needs glasses to see. People wear all different color glasses — including purple — so what’s the difference?”

Nackley said the stigma associated with relying on hearing aids is lessening.

“Especially among the baby boomers who can no longer hear normally. You have to hear to be connected to other people. (Baby boomers) would rather wear hearing aids than miss out on participating in conversations.”

Susan Parr, a doctor of audiology, said “Hearing loss really affects the whole body. Someone with tinnitus is like this all the time,” she said, tightly clenching her fists. “It causes physiological stress in the body.”

In addition to noise exposure, sometimes hearing loss is accelerated by other disease processes that harm the circulatory system, such as high blood pressure, overuse of arthritis medications and others. People who are obese and smoke also have increased risk of hearing loss, she said.

Parr urges people who have ringing in their ears to seek treatment sooner rather than later as a variety of coping strategies can be learned to manage the effects. Tinnitus often occurs when a hearing notch or loss occurs in the high frequency range of speech. The brain is attempting to fill in the missing information caused by hearing loss.

“There’s always more (hearing) to lose until you’ve lost it all,” she said.

People tend to downplay hearing loss, Parr said, but hearing loss takes a toll on the entire family because of miscommunication and research shows untreated hearing loss leads to significant changes in the brain itself that leads to dementia.

“I tell my patients that a hearing aid is cheaper than a divorce,” Parr said.

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.