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Health Answers

As we age, is the pattern of hearing loss different for men and women?

By Judy Foreman
December 15, 2008
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No. The hearing loss that comes with age affects men and women the same way.

"There is no sex difference in the pattern of hearing loss, although there are different patterns of age-related hearing loss," says Dr. Steven Rauch, an ear specialist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Usually, age brings with it "a high frequency hearing loss, and that's true whether you are male or female," says Dr. David Vernick, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in private practice in Chestnut Hill.

Curiously, there does not appear to be any age-related loss of low frequency sounds. It is also not clear why high frequency sounds are the ones to go. "The current thinking is that higher frequency sounds have a higher metabolic demand, so the 'hair cells' in the ear that process sound wear out first," says Rauch.

As a practical matter, this means certain speech sounds - especially the consonants like "s," "f," and "th," which have a hissing quality and are high frequency - become harder to hear as a person ages. Vowel sounds are low frequency, hence, more easily heard by an older person.

How do you know if you are developing hearing loss? The signs, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, include having problems hearing over the telephone; trouble following a conversation if multiple people are talking; turning up the TV so loud that people complain; and finding yourself frequently asking people to repeat themselves.

By age 65, roughly one third of the population needs a hearing aid and by 75, half the population does, though many people who need aids don't use them. But don't just go to a store and buy one. Get your hearing tested by an audiologist, not a hearing aid salesperson. And remember, according to Massachusetts law, you can try it for a month, then get your money back if you decide it doesn't really help or you don't want to use it.

Or you may decide to just put up with a little hearing loss. "Unless it is a social problem," says Vernick, "most people do not care what their level of hearing is."

But if it does get more severe, hearing loss can lead to isolation and even pose safety risk, so it's worth getting checked out. After all, hearing loss is one of the most treatable conditions of aging.

JUDY FOREMAN

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.

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