Fight hearing loss

For seven muffled years, Loris Kasner put off her doctor’s advice to get a hearing aid. Among the obstacles: The Tacoma woman was in her mid-50s and worried what people would think. Would they view the former hairdresser and Puyallup Fair employee as old? Less capable?

Yet when she finally started wearing hearing aids two years ago, colleagues didn’t even notice – save for one significant change.

After vacationing with a friend for five days, Kasner asked if she realized she was using hearing aids. The friend responded, “No. … I wondered why you didn’t keep asking me what I was saying,”

Aging bodies and an increasingly noisy world are combining to damage the hearing of baby boomers like Kasner, now 62.

The good news is new technology has produced more effective and less visible devices to improve hearing. These aren’t your granddad’s hearing aids. Devices are available in a variety of colors, from pink to black, and an array of styles, depending upon the wearer’s preferences and hearing needs.

Kasner’s “open fit, receiver in the canal” hearing aid includes a gray, inch-long piece that fits snugly behind her outer ear and blends with her striking silver hair. A thin plastic-coated wire leads from the gray piece to a receiver about the size of a small pea inside her ear canal. You have to look hard to even see the device.

Plenty of baby boomers could use the aids, according to recent surveys.

Ten million Americans, aged 45 to 64, have hearing loss, compared with 9 million seniors 65 and older with hearing loss, the AARP reports in its publication “Consumer Guide to Hearing Aids.” Put another way, the Better Hearing Institute estimates nearly 15 percent of Americans who are 41 to 59 years old have problems hearing.

“There is an age-related decline (in hearing) for everyone,” said audiology intern Troy Johnson of Puget Sound Hearing Aid & Audiology in Tacoma.

But he and other audiologists say the hazards of contemporary life are compounding the problems of natural hearing loss.

Ears are exposed to more racket than ever from an expanding cacophony of traffic, leaf blowers, construction, electrical appliances and iPods. There are even reverberations from those deafening Ted Nugent and KISS concerts baby boomers attended decades ago.

Prolonged exposure to excessive noise causes irreparable damage to the sound-sensing hair cells in the inner ear. The National Institute on Deafness and Communication disorders reports that exposure to loud sounds is partially responsible for a third of the 31.5 million Americans with hearing loss, according to the AARP’s guide.

“It’s the decibel level and how long people are exposed to it,” said Johnson. “ If you are a teenager and go to maybe 20 concerts, will that show up immediately? More than likely it will not, but the damage is being done, and it will impact you later in life.”

Yet just under a quarter of people who need a hearing aid use one, the AARP guide says.

Going without help can have serious emotional and social consequences, according to the National Council on Aging. A 1999 study by the council found adults whose hearing loss went untreated were more likely to report depression, anxiety and paranoia, and were less likely to participate in social activities.

But wearing a hearing aid challenges the self-image of the generation that once vowed to never trust anyone older than 30. Some don’t want to appear elderly to friends, relatives or an ever-competitive workplace.

Some don’t realize the extent of their loss. Others know they need help but can’t afford it. Many insurance companies won’t pay for the devices, which can cost several thousand dollars. At Puget Sound Hearing Aid & Audiology, a pair of hearing aids starts at $1,500, but the average runs $3,000, Puget Sound audiologist Patty Petermann said. The cost includes testing and follow-up appointments.

For Kasner, it was a combination of factors that caused her reluctance. When she saw an otolaryngologist – a medical doctor specializing in the ear, nose and throat – nine years ago, she wasn’t surprised when he said she had “a lot of hearing loss.”

She was having trouble hearing women’s voices and was habitually asking people to repeat themselves. She was reading lips, yet sometimes responded incorrectly to what she thought people had said. She was turning up the TV so loud it aggravated her husband.

Still, she had trouble adjusting to the idea she needed hearing aids. Plus, her insurance didn’t cover the devices. It was love that drove her to get the aids two years ago.

“I couldn’t hear my grandchildren,” Kasner said. “I couldn’t hear everything that they said when they talked to me on the phone.”

“That’s the typical journey,” Petermann said. “Most people do wait too long. If they came in sooner, the adjustment would be easier plus the quality of life would be improved sooner.”

People who can’t afford hearing aids or visits to a specialist might qualify for programs offered by the Lions Club or other groups, Petermann said. And getting a device can actually help employability.

“If they’re in an interview or in the workplace and not hearing,” Petermann said, “their supervisor or co-workers may view them as not competent.”

Today, Kasner’s hearing with the aids isn’t perfect; she still can’t hear people whispering. But she says her overall hearing is “absolutely” better.

Now she can communicate with her grandkids, who range from 5 to 11 years old.

“People notice I don’t talk as loud as before when I have them on,” she said. “I don’t have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. I am just plain hearing everything.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694