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Unmistakable Signs of Hearing Loss

Millions of Americans experience some kind of hearing loss. Here's how to spot it.


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

AC/DC are survivors. The Australian hard rockers have overcome drug abuse, alcoholism, their guitarist’s dementia diagnosis and even the 1980 death of lead singer Bon Scott to sell 200 million albums worldwide. But there’s one thing they couldn’t conquer: hearing loss.

In March 2016, the band postponed their U.S. tour when frontman Brian Johnson was “advised by doctors to stop touring immediately or risk total hearing loss,” according to a news release. This is the result of racing cars without ear plugs and a lifetime spent in front of monster amplifiers.

He’s far from alone. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), more than a third of people 65 to 74 and half of those over 75 have some degree of hearing loss. It’s the third-most prominent issue for older Americans following arthritis and heart disease, and only gets worse as we age. Most hearing loss in older adults is the combined result of aging — our ears gradually don’t work as well as they used to — and exposure to noise. If you fall into a few specific groups, you’re especially prone.

Even if your hearing is perfect now, there’s still a good chance it could decline later in life.

Hearing Loss: What You Need to Know

“People with a family history of hearing loss, those who have had chronic ear infections, or those people who have certain inner ear diseases, such as Meniere’s disease, are at a higher risk of losing their hearing,” says NIDCD’s Director Dr. James F. Battey, Jr. “Also, people who are exposed to high levels of noise, through occupational and/or recreational exposure, can be at higher risk of hearing loss.” That includes military veterans, construction workers and people like Johnson, who has endured stadium-level guitar volume for decades.

Certain medical issues exacerbate the condition, like diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s been linked to dementia, as well; one 2011 study found that even minor hearing loss contributed to cognitive decline.

Know the Signs

The good news is that although age-related hearing loss is permanent, it isn’t necessarily untreatable. And if you know what to look for, you can act fast for help.

“Some early signs include difficulty hearing in challenging listening situations, particularly when others seem not to struggle,” says Battey. “For example, if you have trouble hearing in the presence of background noise, at the movies, watching television or during telephone conversations, that may be a sign of potential hearing loss.”

Struggling in social settings and frustration at your inability to understand are other telltale signs, but if you’re still not sure, the NIDCD has a handy 10-part questionnaire, “Do You Need a Hearing Test?” that can help you decide whether to see a specialist.

While it’s hard to admit you’re losing your hearing, it’s even harder to tell a loved one she might be losing hers. Broach the topic carefully, with love and concern, and look for the following, says Battey:

  • “If you notice a family member or friend who is struggling to hear in situations in which others seem not to have difficulty, then that is a potential sign.”
  • “If you notice someone needs to turn up the television to a loud level, then that can be another sign.”
  • “If someone is asking you to repeat yourself during a conversation, that could be another potential sign.”

Preserve Your Ears

Even if your hearing is perfect now, there’s still a good chance it could decline later in life; AC/DC’s Johnson is 68, and hearing loss didn’t become a professional issue for him until well into his 60s.

To protect against damage, “Use hearing protection (earplugs or earmuffs) in noisy environments — concerts, sporting events, lawn mowing among other activities,” says Battey. “And if you can’t avoid very loud environments, use hearing protection.”

Finally, know when it’s time to get your ears checked. Many older adults, either unaware or unwilling to address it, delay seeking a diagnosis for years. By then, they’ve missed out on countless conversations and social events. Visiting an audiologist, otolaryngologist or hearing care center will tell you whether it’s time to look into aid devices.

As for Johnson, rumor has it he’s out of a job and AC/DC is looking for a new lead singer. And while he can comfort himself with global adoration and millions and millions of dollars, it won’t help him get his hearing back.

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