Q. When should you think about getting tested for hearing loss?
A. Hearing loss is common with aging, affecting nearly one-third of adults over 65 and half over 75. Ellen O’Neil, associate director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, explains that hearing loss has two parts. One is an inability to hear sounds at lower volumes, the second is a loss of clarity — hearing but not understanding. Loss of clarity is often the first symptom of hearing loss in adults. “The first complaints we get are difficulty with background noise,” O’Neil says — making out a conversation in a crowded restaurant, or when music or a loud fan is on. You may hear someone calling from another room but not understand the words, or you may have trouble conversing while sitting side-by-side in front of a television, when you can’t see your companion’s lips and expressions.
Hearing tests are recommended based on symptoms, not age. The important sign of hearing loss is a change from what you could distinguish or understand before. O’Neil says it’s worth getting thoroughly tested to identify a hearing loss even if you don’t think you need a hearing aid. In some instances a test can identify a treatable medical condition such as fluid buildup in the ears. In cases of mild hearing loss, an audiologist can discuss strategies to make communication easier. O’Neil says a hearing aid becomes more necessary when normal conversations are difficult to hear, which puts people at risk of social isolation.