Health Focus: Hearing Loss

A prominent Marblehead lawyer discovered he was partially deaf at age 34.

hearing-testIt’s important to get your hearing checked throughout your life. Photo via Shutterstock. 

Successful Marblehead lawyer Gerald Shea spent the first 30 years of his life not knowing that he was partially deaf. His new book, Song Without Words (appropriately subtitled, “Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life”), which comes out this week, serves as both a fascinating life story and a message about the importance of protecting and monitoring our hearing health.

One of the most important factors in health is often one of the least considered: your ability to hear clearly. More than 35 million people suffer from hearing loss in the United States, and 90 percent of them are not “profoundly deaf,” but partially deaf. That means those people have lost only some of their hearing, which can impair their understanding and reasoning. But many people may not even know they have hearing loss.

Gerald Shea graduated from the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, attended college at Yale, and then went to Columbia Law School. He became a powerful international lawyer. What Shea didn’t realize until he was 34 years old, however, was that he had been partially deaf since his hearing was damaged by an illness when he was 6-years-old.

The tragedy of Shea’s life is that while he was able, through sheer will and intelligence, to interpret the language of others, had he known that he was partially deaf earlier in his career, he speculates that his life would have been much easier, and perhaps he could have explored even more of his potential.

It’s true that children and the elderly are the most significantly at risk. On August 7, 2012, Governor Patrick signed “An Act to Provide Access to Hearing Aids for Children”  into law. This law mandates insurance coverage for hearing aids for children 21 years old and younger. The American Academy of Pediatrics writes that, “Significant hearing loss is one of the most common major abnormalities present at birth and, if undetected, will impede speech, language, and cognitive development.”

However, hearing loss is not only a risk for young children and the elderly. Adults should be alert about preserving their hearing. Hearing loss throughout life can be a result of unintentionally risky behavior or carelessness. Many people tend to not think about this issue, so they might unconsciously put themselves at risk.

In an article for the Better Hearing Institute, Dr. Brian Fligor of Boston Children’s Hospital writes that noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss in the U.S. In order to minimize the risk of hearing loss from noise, he recommends wearing earplugs around any loud machinery, investing in background-noise canceling headphones, and being wary of being near loud speakers at clubs, sporting events, and concerts. Though hearing loss happens gradually with repeated exposure to loud noise, the end result is often irreparable, so protecting hearing should be a top priority.

It’s not just communication that suffers when hearing is impaired, either. A study by Dr. Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Luigi Ferrucci of the National Institute on Aging reports that hearing loss hurts your coordination and can lead to physical danger from falls. This is because of “cognitive load,” which is when brain becomes overwhelmed. “Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin says in the study. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

To monitor your own health, see a hearing health professional routinely for hearing testing. Pay attention to hearing test results over the years if tests are offered through your employer, and ask questions during these exams. Protect your hearing if you know in advance you will be in a noisy area with loud speakers or fireworks, and preserve your hearing every day by monitoring the noise you listen to on headphones and other devices.