Identifying the signs of hearing loss

Berlin - When a radio is apparently too loud or several people are talking simultaneously, it often becomes difficult for an elderly person to follow a conversation.

However, it's not age that causes deafness but the fact that our hearing has been exposed to damaging noises over the course of years such as loud music.

Usually, the people who are directly affected, recognise too late they are losing their sense of hearing.

"Deafness progresses slowly," explains Josef Chalupper from the Munich-based Forum Gutes Hoeren, an association of hearing technicians and hearing aid makers.

"In most cases it starts with problems hearing at a party. Hearing loss often begins with the inability to hear high frequencies."

The affected person is hardly aware of the minimal changes that are taking place on a daily basis. It's more likely that friends or relatives will notice first.

But even if a person does become aware they are suffering hearing loss, they often choose to ignore it.

"If an old person indicates they have not understood something during a conversation they often experience the following: the talker becomes louder and repeats themselves and what they are saying becomes simplified," explains Professor Caja Thimm, director of the Institute for Communication at the University of Bonn.

"The affected person takes that in a disparaging way, as if they're being told that a person who hears badly is stupid."

And who wants to be identified as a stupid person at first sight? That's why many people delay getting a hearing aid - a visual sign that there's a hearing problem.

A chain of events follows: "Many elderly people withdraw from communicating. They don't want to be constantly asking what has just been said," says Thimm.

Adolf Becker from Deutschen Schwerhoerigenbund, an association that represents the interests of the hard of hearing, has also observed the same avoidance strategy among the elderly.

"They try to just get along by avoiding large groups or certain types of gathering or use the telephone less."

That's a process that leads to increased isolation and can affect the psyche.

It also has a medical affect. "The later a therapy is begun, the more difficult it is to be effective," says Juergen Kiessling, Professor of Audiology and the University of Giessen.

Once a specialist has been consulted, they often prescribe a hearing aid.

A hearing technician then gets a picture of the patient's lifestyle and requirements before building an aid.

Modern hearing aids use computer technology to make sound clearer. A digital hearing aid can be programmed and can be controlled either manually or by remote control.

An elderly person may need some practice at handling the aid. "There are very small hearing aids on the market," says Kiessling. "They're very unobtrusive."

But for an elderly person with poor handling skills they could be difficult to use.

The hearing aid has to be worn every day. "The technology behind a hearing aid is often very daunting for an elderly person," says Thimm. "It's at that stage that friends and family can play an important role."

Even accompanying the person to the annual check-up with the specialist can be helpful. And if someone is at home to go through the instruction manual, all the better.

Patience is required during the first few weeks especially if the affected person has been living with the problem for a long time.

"In the beginning, high frequencies sound very shrill without the person being able to understand what is being said," says Chalupper. "The area of the brain tasked with interpreting acoustic information has become unaccustomed to working."

It can take several weeks or even months for that part of the brain to start functioning again. (dpa)