Changes in hearing are common as people get older. But, like going gray, the shift rarely happens overnight. Think of how a person’s first silver strands may only show in a certain light. The start of an age-related hearing problem can be just as subtle.
But it’s important to pay attention to those first signs. People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to be depressed, feel isolated, and have memory problems later on. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, talk to your doctor or an audiologist about getting a hearing test.
1. Children's voices sound muffled or unclear. When aging takes a toll on your cochlea, the inner ear organ that helps you hear, the cells that detect high-pitched sounds are usually the first to fail. This can make it harder to understand anyone with a high-pitched voice, like children and women. It’s also the reason you may not hear your microwave beep or the crickets chirping at sunset.
2. You can't follow the conversation in noisy places. The background noise at malls and restaurants is generally low-pitched, while many letters in speech, such as “f” and “s,” are high-pitched. If you have trouble hearing the high tones, you will hear the noise better than the speech of people around you. Age-related changes in how the brain processes sound can also make it harder to ignore background noise.
3. You're exhausted after social events. When you can’t hear all the sounds of speech, your brain has to fill in the gaps to make sense of what others are saying. That takes a great deal of focus, especially when there’s more than one person speaking at a time. All this effort may leave you tired after social events. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor or an audiologist. Professionally fit hearing aids could ease the strain.
4. You're watching people's lips instead of making eye contact. When one sense doesn’t work as well as it used to, the brain tries to make up for it by using more of another sense -- in this case, eyesight. Picture the shape of someone’s lips when saying “f” or “p” -- you can “see” these sounds even if you can’t hear them. This may lead you to shift your eyes to the speaker’s mouth when you’re having trouble hearing.
5. Your ears feel clogged. Sometimes this happens when there’s too much wax or fluid in your ears. But if your doctor tells you your ears look clear, it’s a good idea to get a hearing test. Age-related hearing loss can make sounds seem dull or muffled, which may seem similar to a clogged feeling.
6. The volume on your TV keeps creeping up. Television shows tend to mix together dialogue, sound effects, and music. When you hear bass tones better than high tones, the music and effects can drown out parts of the speech. So to make out what the characters are saying, you may crank up the volume. If others in your house complain that the TV is too loud, it’s time to get your hearing checked.