ELMHURST – Nearly 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss in at least one ear, according to a recent Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study. But Heidi McKay of Elmhurst's Sonus Hearing Care Center said early diagnosis improves the quality of life for those suffering from hearing loss.
"The hearing nerve is very similar to a muscle in that it can atrophy," said McKay, an audiologist with the center. "If you don't keep it active, it can become weaker."
The earlier individuals with hearing loss seek help, the slower their hearing loss may progress. Wearing a hearing aide keeps the hearing nerve active.
While May is considered Better Hearing and Speech Month, Sonus always offers free hearing screenings. McKay asks patients about their hearing and medical history before a brief screening.
"A lot of times, hearing loss could be as simple as just cerumen impaction," said McKay. The term simply means earwax build-up.
For the screening, McKay checks inside each ear. Patients then sit in a sound booth with speakers similar to ear buds in their ears, listening to tones on four different frequencies and at several decibel levels.
The entire pass or fail process takes between 10 to 15 minutes.
"Should a patient fail this test, then we would recommend that they do a full evaluation," McKay said.
A full audiological screening allows audiologists to determine the extent and type of hearing loss a patient has and the best option for treatment. The most common types of hearing loss are neural or sensory related and cannot be corrected, but patients can benefit from hearing aides.
Conductive hearing loss is less common and can sometimes be treated with medical procedures.
McKay said on average, people wait seven to 10 years after they begin to notice hearing loss before pursuing amplification through hearing aides.
"Unfortunately, there's the very old stigma of what hearing aides used to be," she said.
Today's hearing aides are much smaller and more discrete than they were. They also work better, reducing background noise while maintaining the integrity of speech during a conversation.
The effects of living with hearing loss for that long can lead to diminished mental health, McKay said. Sometimes people develop communication strategies, such as shaking their head or giggling to mask their hearing loss, but the strategies only work for so long.
"So they start to isolate themselves and that isolation is what then leads to depression," McKay said.
Hearing loss does not just affect the elderly. According to Sonus, people with diabetes are 30 percent more likely to suffer from hearing loss, and exposure to loud noises for extended periods can cause hearing loss to anyone, regardless of age.
"Our younger generation is just listening to music way too loud," McKay said.
To schedule a free hearing screening, call the Elmhurst Sonus Hearing Care Center, 591 S. York St., at 630-833-4327.