If you get a check-up once a year, you’re used to tests for blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and more, but what about hearing? Obviously, if you experience hearing loss, you should ask your doctor about it and/or seek help from a licensed hearing care professional like an audiologist, hearing aid specialist, or Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor.

If you’re experiencing other symptoms, or not sure whether you might need hearing care, the FDA has established eight red flags that serve as warning signs for consumers. 

The eight red flags are: 

  1. Visible congenital or traumatic deformity of the ears; 
  2. History of active drainage from the ear within the previous 90 days;
  3. Visible evidence of significant cerumen accumulation or a foreign body in the ear canal; 
  4. Pain or discomfort in the ear; 
  5. Acute or chronic dizziness; 
  6. Audiometric air-bone gap equal to or greater than 15 dB at 500, 1000, and 2000 Hz (ie, a hearing care professional would have to discover this); 
  7. History of sudden or rapidly progressive hearing loss within the previous 90 days, and
  8. Unilateral hearing loss of sudden or recent onset within the previous 90 days. 

If you recognize any of the flags, seek medical help from a physician before obtaining a hearing aid or amplification device. In particular, sudden hearing loss (#7 and #8 above) is one of the few real “emergencies of the ear” and an immediate referral to an ENT doctor is warranted. Time is of the essence, because some steroid treatments may make a difference in the amount of hearing loss that could occur.

Other potentially serious problems covered by the FDA red flags include an ear infection (otitis media or otitis media with effusion), or much rarer, an acoustic neuroma or other medical problem. Until only recently, everyone who wanted to purchase a hearing aid either first had to be examined by a physician or sign a “physician waiver.”

In most cases, hearing loss may not signal imminent danger, but instead may warn of significant peril in the years ahead. For example, the medical literature has linked untreated hearing loss to a raft of physical and cognitive problems, including loneliness, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease. Poor hearing may also be associated with diabetes and heart disease—even early death and poorer financial status. 

“According to a Johns Hopkins study by Dr Frank Lin, people with hearing loss are 40% more likely to have dementia,” warns Mark J. Sanford, MS, an audiologist who owns CSG Better Hearing Services in the San Francisco Bay Area. “People starting at 40 or 50 years of age, depending on family history and noise exposure, should have a hearing test as a baseline. If normal, then 3 to 5 years before next test, and if hearing loss is discovered, then yearly, or may be every two years if mild hearing loss or younger age.” 

The gradual nature of hearing loss is perhaps its most insidious feature, and once that hearing is gone, there is no way to get it back without hearing aids. “Hearing loss in many cases is preventable,” says Marshall Chasin, AuD, owner of Toronto-based Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. “I’d rather see a 14-year-old kid than a 40-year-old man, especially if they’re a musician. I’d like to see them at the beginning of their music career rather than the middle or the end. What can we do today to protect hearing and develop strategies? How can we make them aware that music, although it doesn’t sound loud, is loud enough to cause hearing loss?” 

Ultimately, age alone is a legitimate reason to see an hearing care professional about hearing loss. Sanford confirms the following age-related statistics that show the highest risk demographics: 

  • 1 in 4 people 60+ years old have hearing loss; 
  • 2 in 4 people 70+ years old have hearing loss; and
  • 3 in 4 people 80+ years old have hearing loss. 

“It used to be you turned 65 and died the next week,” Sanford muses. “In today’s world, you turn 65 and you have 20 or 30, maybe 40 years to go. The fastest growing population per capita is people who are 85-plus. But because people with hearing loss are 40% more likely to have dementia, we need to test them. That will improve our healthcare as a nation.”

Photo: © Makarova Olga