If I were the sort of geezer who worried about such things, I might have christened my 68th year by developing a comprehensive plan to lower my risk of cardiac arrest, stroke, cancer, or any of the other common maladies that reliably deliver us to death’s doorway. Instead, I seem to be suddenly obsessed with earwax.
Many evenings now find me crouched over the bathroom sink, noggin parallel to the floor, squeezing drops into my ears in the vain hope of unlocking the vault of cerumen lodged inside. My morning routine has similarly expanded, as I flush both ears with a bulb syringe filled with warm water, rejoicing at any bits of debris that happen to dribble into the sink.
Yes, this may qualify as weird, but it’s not entirely irrational.
It turns out that my excessive production of cerumen may have been damaging my hearing aids. So, after getting them back from the shop the other day and scheduling a much-needed professional ear cleaning, it occurred to me that a regular wax-eradication program may be in order. This was not solely an auditory-improvement decision; the warranty on those electrical ears runs out in December and I’m not keen on dropping another six grand for a new pair.
There may be other good reasons, as well. As Jackie Clark, president of the American Academy of Audiology, tells Kaiser Health News, cleaner ears may keep us geezers out of the hospital. “The excessive amount of earwax can cause hearing loss or ringing in your ears. Some people experience vertigo, which increases the risk of falling,” Clark explains. “Right now, we see some correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline.”
This cerumen conundrum affects about 30 percent of elderly Americans — and up to 75 percent of nursing-home residents — most of whom tend to ignore it until deafness looms. It’s so widespread that cleaning ears has become something of a growth industry. “It’s epidemic,” Janie York, founder of Hear Now mobile hearing solutions, tells KHN. “About three in five people I see have some degree of impaction and most are completely impacted.”
If there’s any irony in all this, it’s that hearing aids tend to exacerbate the problem. They can stimulate the sebaceous and sweat glands in the walls of the outer ear canal to produce more wax and prevent it from migrating naturally out of the ear. The acidic cerumen gets into hearing-aid vents and receivers, shutting them down.
In light of all this, I suppose my evening and morning ablutions might be more generously viewed as an uncharacteristically rational preventive strategy. Results so far have been encouraging, but you never know about these things. Whether or not it ultimately fends off deafness, it may at least provide some gallows humor at my funeral. I can just imagine My Lovely Wife dabbing at her eyes and shaking her head: “The guy took better care of his ears than his heart.”