When we were kids, hearing loss was funny.
My sister and I made a game out of saying what we believed to be hilarious things, in normal tones, right in front of our grandmother, who we were sure couldn’t hear a thing.
“Do you think Grandma got up at 3 in the morning to start cooking the canned peas?” I asked Julie at the Thanksgiving table.
“Yes,” my sister said, causing us both to dissolve into hysterics.
“What’s so funny, girls?” Grandma asked.
“Nothing,” we said, wiping tears of holiday joy from our eyes.
At the end of the meal, over Mrs. Smith’s frozen pumpkin pie with non-dairy whipped topping, we pretended to talk to each other with no sound at all coming from our mouths. Really, what could be funnier?
Needless to say, the powers that be were not amused, and my sister and I got our just deserts: hearing aids in our 40s. Both of us. Now in our 50s, we’re forced to make jokes about being ahead of the curve.
A recent study in the Journals of Gerontology reports that 63.1 percent of adults in the United States — nearly two out of every three — will contend with significant hearing loss by the time they’re 70. At age 85 and older, it’s four out of five.
With the first of 78 million baby boomers turning 66 this year, it won’t be long before you’ll be able to walk down the middle of any street in America and hear a chorus of blaring televisions.
“Eventually this is going to be all of us,” Julie said to me recently. “Anyone who’s feeling smug now, check your watch.”
Whoa, relax. My sister’s not talking about you. She’s talking about your parents or your spouse or the nearly 23 million other people older than 50 who are having trouble hearing but have yet to seek help. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University report that about six out of seven of Americans over 50 who have hearing loss don’t wear hearing aids.
The reluctance to get hearing aids can be tough on spouses and adult children. Yelling, nagging and enunciating (“I said sects, not sex!”) probably won’t push a relative to get his hearing tested. But maybe attacking the problem in a bigger way would, a way that chips away some of the stigma and marshals the power of tens of millions of boomers who don’t want to age the way their parents did. Or, frankly, at all.
Maybe we can find a way to make hearing aids cool. If you’re with me, here are a few things we can do to get this revolution started.
Step 1: Be proud
Say it with me: I am over 50, and I have trouble hearing people who mumble. No, try that again: I am over 50, and I have trouble hearing.
Given the ubiquity of age-related hearing loss, it seems silly to be embarrassed. If we were adolescents, we’d be thrilled to be like everyone else.
We don’t need to nod and smile, pretending to hear. And we don’t need to avoid wearing hearing aids. Not when everyone under 40 is wearing ear buds, headphones and Bluetooth devices clipped to their ears.
Now it’s our turn — our chance — to buy ridiculously expensive, tiny technological toys that go in, on or behind our ears. Our turn to dazzle our friends with their tricks: “You gotta see this . . . ”
Step 2: Understand your new techno-powers
Today’s hearing aids are not ear trumpets. They are digital devices, meaning they’re driven by a computer chip capable of more than a million instructions per second.
Old hearing aids amplified sounds — all sounds, even the ones in the background and the ones you heard just fine. But today’s hearing aids are programmed to match your unique hearing loss, providing amplification in the exact way you need it (turning up just the higher tones, for instance), while cutting down on distracting background noise.
David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan and author of “A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss,” got hearing aids in his 40s and wasn’t exactly impressed. Now 69, Myers said technological improvements in the past 10 years have changed his mind. “I now love the hearing instruments I once barely tolerated,” he told me.
Myers wears behind-the-ear hearing aids, which don’t block up the ear the way in-the-canal aids can. As a result, he says, the world no longer “sounds like your head is in a bucket.”
Myers has a variety of settings on his hearing aids to help him hear in different situations. One setting engages a directional microphone, which “prioritizes where I’m looking,” he said. “It amplifies sound from right in front of me and dampens sound from behind or to the side of me,” which helps in rooms with a lot of background noise, such as restaurants.
A noise-reduction setting, explained Meyers, helps “in a car or near an air conditioning system”; a reverberation-reduction setting is for use in rooms where there’s a lot of echoing sound,” such as large churches or gyms; and a default setting “allows the hearing instrument to choose what to do.”