Fifty years ago, Howard Groopman was at Woodstock — he still has the ticket stub to prove it. Now 68, Groopman can list hundreds of concerts he’s attended, and he’s not done. He’s a fan of 1970s and 80s tribute bands, and he’s looking forward to an upcoming Heart and Joan Jett show.
But that lifetime of exposure to loud music has had an impact. Groopman was recently diagnosed with hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids.
Like many people, he didn’t realize that his hearing was deteriorating. That’s partly because our medical system isn’t designed to screen for hearing loss, says Duane Smelser, a licensed hearing instrument specialist who recently tested Groopman’s hearing. And noise-induced hearing loss develops slowly, so people aren’t aware of the sounds they’re missing.
Spotting signs of trouble
“I didn’t think my hearing was so bad that I would require hearing aids. I knew I had trouble hearing certain things, but as a whole I hear pretty well for my age,” Groopman says.
But looking back, he can point to signs that his hearing wasn’t as solid as it used to be: When he saw the play The Book of Mormon, he could hear the actors talking but couldn’t make out a lot of what they were saying. He turns on the captions when he watches TV. He often has to ask his mumbling son to repeat himself.
Smelser says people with undiagnosed hearing loss also often avoid challenging listening situations, especially in social settings. “They don’t go to parties, restaurants, club meetings or church,” he says. But they believe their hearing is fine — it’s just that those situations are too noisy.
They often also struggle to understand the higher-pitched voices of young children. “That’s often a big motivator for getting hearing aids — they know how frustrating and upsetting it is for these kids when they are not heard by Grandpa or Grandma,” Smelser says.
Hearing loss is widespread among aging Americans like Groopman. A new survey conducted by The Harris Poll found that 47% of people age 65 to 80 who listened to loud music when they were young reported hearing loss.
But many people delay hearing tests. “People often justify not getting their hearing evaluated because they think it’s not bad enough yet,” Smelser says.
And even after they’re diagnosed, many people don’t treat their hearing loss. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, people wait an average of 10 years after diagnosis before being fitted for hearing aids.
That could be because there’s still a stigma associated with hearing aids. “People think wearing hearing aids makes them look old,” Smelser says. “But they irony is, people look older when they have a hearing loss, because they are struggling to hear.”
A hearing aid user himself, Smelser, 65, understands the discomfort people have with hearing aids at first. As part of his professional training 19 years ago he had his hearing tested. “To my shock and dismay, I had hearing loss,” he says.
Groopman concedes that he didn’t want to wear hearing aids even though they are barely visible: “It’s a vanity thing.”
Improving hearing and health
While Groopman is still getting used to his new hearing aids, he notices a difference in what he can hear with them.
“My son turned on the kitchen sink from 20 feet away and it sounded like Niagara Falls. When I sit on the porch and the cars go whooshing by it’s very noticeable. Walking through the house I hear every last creak. When I crumple up a piece of paper it’s pretty loud,” he says.
Smelser says his patients appreciate the benefits they gain from their hearing aids. “Hearing aids do an amazing job of reducing background noise and making speech easily understandable,” he says. “People become aware of how much they had to lean forward and strain to understand what people are saying. With hearing aids in they don’t have to strain anymore.”
And, with hearing aids, music sounds like it used to. “I have had grown men in tears. They are moved to their core by the beauty of the music they once heard that has been missing for so long,” Smelser says.
Smelser says people are turning to hearing aids to improve their overall health as well. They are becoming aware of the health risks of hearing loss, like depression, cognitive impairment, heart disease, and an increased risk of falls. “It can have a pretty significant impact on your way of life,” he says.
Groopman says the increased risk of dementia with even mild hearing loss scared him, especially since his mother had dementia in her later years.
“That’s something people my age want to avoid.”