Today, I want you to ask yourself a few uncomfortable questions...
Many folks hate admitting that their hearing is dwindling. They're in denial about their condition, or they just don't notice the subtle signs of early decline.
But be honest with yourself about these questions...
How often do you ask people to repeat what they said because you misheard a word?
Do you have trouble following conversations in busy places like restaurants?
Is your spouse complaining about how loud the TV is when you turn it on?
It's likely that you – or someone you know – could answer yes to at least one of these questions.
Hearing loss gets more common with age, but it's not exclusive to older folks...
One study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed one in five young adults (aged 20 to 29) already had measurable hearing loss in at least one ear.
That number jumped to one in four for folks aged 50 to 59 and grew rapidly after that. By the time you're 70, you have a 68% chance of suffering from hearing loss.
Here's how the damage occurs...
In our inner ear is a structure called the cochlea. Shaped like a snail shell, it contains fluid and about 16,000 hairs. Together, these process sound and send the signals to our brains through auditory nerves.
Loud noises damage these hairs. And these hairs don't regrow. Worse, about 30% to 50% of these hairs suffer damage before a hearing test detects a problem.
So how loud is too loud?
A review from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany looked at noise pollution. Researchers noted damage with anything over 60 decibels (dB). To put that in perspective, 60 dB is merely the volume of a normal conversation. City traffic is about 80 dB, and sitting in a subway car puts you at 95 dB.
And think about this... our smartphones go even louder. On maximum volume, they produce more than 100 dB.
We all know that you need ear protection if you're working around airplanes or at the firing range, but riding the subway or walking down the street?
I keep an app on my phone called Sound Meter that measures hearing levels, and I report it to the airlines when the flight attendants and captains turn up the volume on the intercom too loud. (Seriously, I care that much about hearing loss.)
Ear damage from too much noise isn't just a problem for our hearing. It even puts our brains at risk. According to a review from Johns Hopkins, hearing loss is a significant factor in dementia, but it's the least studied.
According to the research, hearing loss leads to three key outcomes:
- Increased cognitive load (brain forced to work harder)
- Brain structure and function changes
- Decreased social engagement
A functional MRI study from Ohio State University demonstrated that folks with mild hearing loss had greater brain activity. More of their brains had to work harder to hear and make sense of speech.
The researchers believe this overworking of the brain contributes to dementia... You're putting too much stress on a part of the brain not designed to work with hearing. It's different from brain-training exercises that target specific parts of the brain to prevent decline.
Decreased social engagement is easy to understand. It's frustrating and embarrassing to ask people to repeat themselves. Eventually it's easier to stop going to restaurants, festivals, exercise classes, and more.
The problem... social isolation leads to early death. Researchers from Brigham Young University found that loneliness and social isolation increase your risk of early death by as much as 50%. What's more, lack of socialization also contributes to cognitive decline. That's why staying engaged and active as we age is so important for keeping our minds sharp.
What to Do If You Think You Have Hearing Loss
Unfortunately – at least here in the U.S. – you're largely on your own... The ability to hear well isn't considered essential once you're an adult.
Most insurance and Medicare don't cover hearing exams, or hearing aids if you need them, for adults. If you're not on Medicare yet, your health insurance company might offer a hearing-specific plan – at an added cost, of course.
If you're already on Medicare, Part B could cover costs of hearing exams, but only if your health care provider needs them to diagnose another medical issue other than hearing loss. It won't cover hearing aids or exams to fit them. But you can purchase a Medicare Advantage plan that offers hearing benefits.
So what can you do?
First, try an affordable way to test your hearing. The National Hearing Test is a simple screening test you can take in the privacy of your own home for an $8 fee. You register online, pay, and receive a code to use. Then get on the phone, call the number, and punch in your code. It only takes about 10 minutes and evaluates both ears. You can learn more about it right here.
The key is to follow up with a doctor within a year if you show any signs of impairment. Call your insurance provider to check your coverage beforehand, though.
If you need a hearing aid, that could easily cost you several thousand dollars per ear. Fortunately, there are some options to soften the blow...
Both flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs) allow you to use your funds for hearing aids and batteries. Remember, you fund these plans with pre-tax dollars. You can then use these accounts for eligible health costs, tax-free. The key difference is that an FSA doesn't carry funds over at the end of the year, while an HSA does.
This is one reason we recommend keeping an HSA account. You can also invest the funds after a certain level of deposits, so you can see your savings grow. What's more, after age 65 you can withdraw funds for any reason and simply pay tax (covered health care reasons are still tax-free).
Also, veterans likely qualify for low-cost or free hearing-related services through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Before you get a hearing test or a hearing aid, investigate all of your financing options for the best deal. Have another tip for saving on hearing aids? Send it in to us at [email protected].
What We're Reading...
- Learn more about Medicare Advantage.
- Something different: Why we lie about reading books.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
August 16, 2022