A few years ago Betty Blazer's children constantly suggested she needed her hearing checked. Blazer, who was in her mid-80s at the time, believed her ears were fine.
"I told them 'I have no problem hearing,'" said Blazer of State College, who recently turned 90. Her husband, who passed away six years ago, needed hearing aids in both ears. Blazer didn't have that problem. Or so she thought.
But her children noticed she talked too loud, and she often missed entire conversations without realizing it.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Audiologist Dr. Elise Uhring of Uhring’s Hearing & Balance Center, State College, uses a tympanometer middle ear analyzer on a patient. Uhring also has an office in Huntingdon.
"When you don't hear, you don't know what you're missing. I thought I was hearing everything, but I wasn't," said Blazer, who eventually relented and agreed to have her hearing tested.
Sure enough Blazer was not hearing correctly and once she began using hearing aids in both ears, she noticed a remarkable difference.
"This makes you a whole person," Blazer said.
Blazer is among the 36 million adults who report some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Information Center on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. At age 65, one of three people has some degree of hearing loss. Though there may be a stigma attached to hearing loss, it's important people know they are not alone, said Nancy Macklin, director of events and marketing for the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Hearing loss doesn't just affect seniors.
With the prevalence of portable music devices and other gadgets, the number of people with diminished hearing is steadily growing and more people are expected to lose their hearing at younger ages, Macklin said.
"There have been some studies that show greater instances of hearing loss in teenagers. One in five teenagers has some degree of hearing loss," she said.
Noise exposure and other environmental causes can result in hearing loss, as well as genetics.
"I find it's not just due to age," Dr. Elise Uhring of Uhring's Hearing & Balance Center in Huntingdon and State College, said.
"I've tested 90-year-old people who have hearing as well as mine. Then we have 20-, 30-, 40-year-old people with hearing aids. It truly has to do with what they've inherited, but also what noise they've been around," she said.
In age-related hearing loss, changes in the inner ear that happens as you get older cause a slow, but steady hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss can happen over time or suddenly. Being exposed to everyday noises, such as listening to loud music or using a lawn mower can lead to hearing loss, according to the National Information Center on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Other causes include ear injury, infection, ruptured ear drum or other conditions that affect the middle or inner ear, according to www.hearingloss.org.
Whatever the reason, people should be aware of indicators that they might not be hearing correctly. Surprisingly a lot of people are like Blazer and they don't realize they are losing their hearing. The loss may be so gradual that people don't notice a difference and they may believe it's a natural part of aging, Macklin said.
Suzy Lutz of State College, Blazer's 63-year-old daughter, also didn't realize her hearing had diminished until she underwent a free hearing screening at Penn State University.
"I thought I was going to have my ears checked and they told me I wouldn't be able to hear my granddaughters if I didn't have something done to my ears," says Lutz, explaining she has difficulty hearing high frequencies.
Lutz visited her mother's hearing specialist, Uhring, who recommended she use hearing aids to help her hear high-pitched sounds, and to also interact better in crowds of people.
"I'm thinking 'Oh my gosh. I'm too young to have hearing aids.' But she had me try it, and now I'm so much more aware of stuff," Lutz said.
People should have a baseline hearing test before they turn 50, Uhring said.
"A baseline would mean having hearing tested by an audiologist to have something to compare it to as you get older," she said.
Hearing should be tested just as people test eyesight, cholesterol levels or blood pressure, Macklin said. "Hearing loss is really a health issue just like anything else. It's third in line behind heart disease and arthritis as the most significant health issue," she added.
Some people might think hearing loss is inevitable with age, and they might not recognize the signs of hearing loss, so having a baseline test on record will help an audiologist. Some signs to consider are ringing in the ears, muffled sounds, needing to turn the volume louder on the television and having difficulty talking over the phone or in groups of people.
"Having a hearing loss is so isolating," Uhring said. "If you lose hearing you lose people and you lose communication. You lose the ability to connect. It can be unbelievably devastating."
Hearing aids and more
If a hearing test determines a loss, an audiologist will decide how to treat the patient and whether hearing aids are necessary.
"Not everybody gets hearing aids. It depends on the level of hearing loss," Uhring said. "We try to take the person into account."
One treatment option is processing therapy, which involves processing exercises to improve the brain's ability to understand sound. If there is a severe hearing loss, hearing aids are usually recommended and can be tailored to the individual.
"We select the perfect set of amplification for the individual. We try to find hearing aids that meet that person's lifestyle, meet their needs and meet what they want," Uhring said, indicating patients can try the hearing aids for two weeks at no cost to ensure they are the right fit.
With advances in technology, hearing aids are no longer bulky, cumbersome pieces of equipment. Smaller in size and more discreet, today's hearing aids are also more effective. New technology includes dual processor computers, which improves one's ability to hear and understand noise, Uhring said. There are also hearing aids which help diminish ringing in the ears, and hearing aids that shift higher frequencies to a more usable region.
"Things have come so far that there are very few people that we can't help," Uhring said. "The technology is unbelievable right now."