A few weeks ago, puzzled by the way my hearing aids would suddenly shut down, I scheduled an appointment with an audiologist at the University of Minnesota. She spruced up the machinery and took a look in my ears before suggesting that I flush out the wax.
“But that doesn’t really explain why my hearing aids would suddenly stop working,” I said. “I mean it’s not like the wax suddenly clogs the ear canal. It’s always there.”
“There’s a lot of wax in there,” she replied, patiently. “You should get it flushed out.”
Someone with a higher level of intellectual curiosity may have pursued this line of questioning to a more logical conclusion, but the audiologist seemed to be about the age of my daughter, which reminded me how conversations like this tend to end, so I let it go. Besides, I was having trouble hearing her.
So I visited my doctor the other day to get my ears cleaned, a simple procedure that follows a complicated inquisition about blood pressure, height, weight, vaccinations, cancer screenings, and various other cautions and alarms.
At a certain point, I asked the nurse — who also seemed to be about my daughter’s age — whether it would be possible to get my ears cleaned without going through all the other rigmarole, a query that was greeted with a pleasant incredulity. “No,” she explained patiently. “The doctor has to order the ear cleaning, and she can’t order it until we check your vitals.”
This would’ve been a good time to launch into a stinging critique of the Western medical model, but I suppressed the urge. It’s a small price to pay for functioning ears.
Old guys like me tend to ignore instructions. It’s not so much a symptom of poor listening skills as a stubborn attachment to the status quo — or maybe the way things ought to be. To wit, fewer than one in three Americans 70 and older with poorly functioning ears uses hearing aids, according to a new study from Indiana University.
I get that. It took me several years of navigating muffled conversations before I took the plunge. Hearing aids are pricey, for one thing, and health insurance generally doesn’t cover the cost. Then there’s the uncomfortable realization that you’re no longer a completely intact human — your body has begun to betray you. One of your five senses has become senseless.
But we ignore hearing loss at our peril. It can lead to cognitive dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and even an increased risk of falls as we age. Every interaction becomes something of a guessing game — reading lips, assuming responses, nodding and grinning stupidly in the absence of actionable information. Or just an endless succession of “Excuse me, what?”
The Indiana University study, directed by Larry Humes, PhD, a professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, set out to establish that hearing aids can improve quality of life for geezers with poorly functioning ears. They tested 154 people between the ages of 55 and 79 and found that participants who were given top-of-the-line devices were more likely than those who used over-the-counter hearing aids to buy and use them after the initial six-week trial period. Those who consulted with an audiologist after the initial trial were even more likely to buy into the whole hearing-improvement idea.
Humes and his crew hope their research will lead to further studies designed to convince healthcare policymakers to make hearing aids more affordable and accessible. This may be a timely public-health mission, given recent projections showing that the number of people suffering from hearing loss may double in the United States by 2060.
That’s a lot of people staring vacantly at baristas asking them whether that will be for here or to go.
I won’t be one of them, though. I’ll endure the indignities that precede a good ear cleaning and dutifully submit to any foggy logic that may accompany a tune-up of my artificial ears. All with the vain hope that someday I may win an argument with my daughter.