UF study examines impact of hearing loss

Study findings show that most elderly people do acknowledge their hearing problems.

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 11:18 p.m.
Tell an older person that they're losing their hearing, and they may admit it. But try to get them to acknowledge that their hearing loss is a strain on themselves and their families, and they just can't hear you.
Those are the findings from a new University of Florida study of hearing loss in the elderly.
"There's an expression by a famous audiologist, Mark Ross, that when someone in the family has a hearing loss, the entire family has a hearing problem," said Patricia Kricos, a UF professor of communication sciences and disorders who led the research. "That is so true, because it affects every member of the family, not just the person who's hard of hearing."
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition experienced by older Americans today, affecting about one-third of people over 65, and half of those in their 80s, Kricos said.
"Audiologists have thought for years that older people deny their hearing loss by saying kids today don't speak clearly or people mumble, in short blaming their inability to hear on everybody else," the researcher said. "But our study found that a majority do acknowledge their hearing loss."
Left untreated, hearing loss is a serious problem for older people because it contributes to their sense of anxiety, depression and social isolation, she said. Seniors with hearing loss may no longer want to attend social get-togethers they once enjoyed because they tire of trying to read lips, or they may be afraid to take their dogs out for walks because they couldn't hear an approaching car.
"If you're 83 years old and have a significant hearing loss, you might even worry about being able to hear someone break into your house or apartment at night," she said.
For the study, Kricos and Sherri Smith, a former UF graduate student in communication sciences and disorders, administered questionnaires asking residents of several North Central Florida retirement communities if they thought they had a hearing loss. All of the participants were 65 or older and had never worn hearing aids.
Kricos and Smith followed the questionnaire with hearing tests and a 10-question survey about the effects hearing loss had on their lives.
Of 91 participants in the study, 62 percent admitted having a hearing loss. Of the 35 participants who denied having the problem, about a third had normal hearing in on-site hearing screening tests. Only five people had a hearing loss and denied it.
"In this study, Dr. Kricos finds, unlike conventional wisdom, that people with a hearing loss do know that their hearing is impaired," said Mark Ross, a professor emeritus of audiology at the University of Connecticut. "They are not so much denying the hearing loss as denying the impact of the loss upon themselves and their families."
Hearing loss carries a stigma, but this may be less true than in the past, Kricos said.
"There's a whole different attitude about aging today, and we're going to see it even more with this new generation of baby boomers coming up," she said. "They are not going to be content to sit on the front porch rocker and watch the world go by."
In addition, hearing aid fitting has become more reputable and professional, said Kricos, who also serves as director of UF's Center for Gerontological Studies.
Other studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of elderly people who might benefit from hearing aids don't wear them, probably because they are expensive and initially difficult to learn how to use, Kricos said.
The latest highly digital programmable hearing aids cost about $5,000 for both ears, and even if people can afford them, about 18 percent of all hearing aids purchased are returned before the end of the 30-day trial period, according to Kricos.
This doesn't include those that are never worn. As many as one out of four hearing aids may end up in the dresser drawer, she said.
Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@ gvillesun.com.

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