Stigma of hearing loss is a barrier to getting help for many

TAYA FLORESJournal & Courier Published:

EST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) -- It was five years ago when Robin Benson first suspected that her mother, Dolores Murphy, might have a hearing problem. But her suspicions were confirmed once Murphy moved into Benson's West Lafayette home earlier this year.

"She thought we were all talking too low," Benson said. "She would be watching TV and you could see that it would have to be really high. People would come to the door or knock on the door and she would not hear that."

After prodding from her daughter, Murphy eventually got her hearing checked and found out that she had moderate hearing loss in one ear and severe hearing loss in the other.

"You don't pay attention to those things," said Murphy, 81. "When I lived alone, I could turn the TV up as loud as I wanted."

On average, people wait 5 to 7 years after their hearing problems began before they visit a hearing doctor, said Dr. Judy Marquess-Lara, an audiologist with Franciscan St. Elizabeth Health in partnership with Whisper Hearing Centers. One of the main contributing factors to this procrastination is the stigma that surrounds hearing loss. The stigma or view that hearing loss is socially unacceptable is fueled by a variety of misconceptions including the myths of the bulky and defunct hearing aid, hearing loss as a sign of aging and its ability to be mistaken for other conditions, according to local audiologists.

"Untreated hearing loss has the same symptoms as early dementia or Alzheimer's (disease), paranoia, withdrawal from social situations," she said. "There's a lot of research out there about the effects of untreated hearing loss, one of which is a lower income throughout a lifetime. There is definitely a stigma involved, which is part of why people wait so long."

Dr. Carol Downard, an audiologist with Indiana University Health Arnett, said since hearing loss is an invisible condition; it often gets mistaken for other issues and can affect family, work and other interpersonal relationships.

"There are too many people who get depressed or withdrawn because they are so afraid of answering the question wrong," she said. "A lot of times the person with hearing loss blames other people."

Since hearing loss is an invisible condition it can also be mistaken for rudeness or simply not paying attention. "People get accused of being aloof or rude or not as mentally up to par, and (outsiders don't) think about it being hearing loss," Downard said.

But Downard said the stigma surrounding hearing loss is internal and not external. "I think the individual is worried (about) what other people are going to think," she said. "I think there are too many people who associate hearing loss with aging and that's not the case."

Hearing loss affects both the young and the old, according to both audiologists.

While it is more prevalent among those 60 and older -- 3 in 10 people age 60 and older have hearing loss -- it still affects younger people. About 1 in 6 adults ages 41 to 59 and 1 in 14 adults ages 29-40 have hearing loss, according to the Better Hearing Institute.

It even affects children. At least 1.4 million children (18 and younger) have hearing problems and 3 in 1,000 babies are born with serious to profound hearing loss, according to BHI.

Marquess-Lara said another reason why people procrastinate on having their hearing checked is the fact that it's a silent and often times painless problem. Also, while more than 90 percent of all hearing loss is sensory neural and can only be remedied by a hearing aid, people might shy away from having to wear one, she added.

Initially, Murphy didn't want anything to do with hearing aids. She said her friends who wore them were "always fiddling" with them. "They told me they had to buy different ones all the time," she said.

Downard said the cost of hearing aids can also be a deterrent because most insurance companies do not cover them. She said her hearing aids range in price from about $1,700 to $4,900 a pair, which might be similar among other audiologists.

But Marquess-Lara said over time, the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids has lessened and people are more open to getting help with their hearing.

Now Murphy is comfortable with her hearing aids, which she received in the spring. "I really didn't think I needed it," she said. "I guess she was right. We don't want to admit to things at our age."

Her daughter appreciates the hearing aids too. "She can hear the most minute things now," Benson said. "It's pretty amazing."

Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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