Sounds Of Silence
Although my hearing loss often makes me feel alone, the rapidly growing number of hard-of-hearing Americans suggests that’s not really the case.
Everyone mumbles. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. I heard the words; they just didn’t make sense. Vowels were dropping out, consonants were blending. At a busy restaurant, the hostess’ question, “Table for how many?” would somehow morph into “We don’t have any.” High-pitched voices—kids’ especially—blurred into a buzz of unintelligible sounds. That’s how it started, anyway.
For a few years, I truly believed everyone else was at fault. I used a litany of excuses to shield myself from the truth. Despite my wife’s gentle but insistent nudges that I get my hearing checked, I only faced my disability when, at a weeklong retreat in Moab with colleagues one year, I realized that my struggle to hear was noticeable to the outside world. As usual, I missed conversations, offered non sequitur answers to questions I thought someone had asked, and sometimes simply failed to respond at all. Late in the week, an editor, a Boston Irishman with a 60-grit personality and a love of needling people, looked at me and said, without a trace of teasing, “You should really get your hearing checked.”
Some people lose their hearing suddenly—via a single, loud blast of noise, a head injury, an illness, or even a medication (some chemotherapy drugs, for example)—and they know right away. But for most of us, unexplainable sensorineural hearing loss is a creeping, insidious disability that we are always the last to notice, and the last to accept. Among people with hearing loss who get hearing aids, it takes an average of six years from the onset of hearing loss for them to do so. (Nearly 75 to 80 percent of those with hearing loss never do.) As frustrating as the denial is to our loved ones, it’s a form of protection against hearing loss; it’s an awful truth we don’t want to accept. And for good reason: Just before her 75th birthday, Helen Keller wrote, “After a lifetime in silence and darkness, to be deaf is a greater affliction than to be blind.”
To be hearing impaired is to constantly wonder what you’re failing to notice and to endure the unending struggle of trying not to miss whatever you think that might be. It’s the loneliness when everyone else laughs at a joke you didn’t hear. It’s the fatigue of concentration; the fear that the slightest lapse in vigilance will mean something crucial is lost. And it’s the quiet withdrawal from society, the reflexive result of dozens, maybe hundreds, of awkward social exchanges that reinforce the seductive conclusion that maybe it’s easier just not to engage.
The isolation is bad enough, but hearing impairment isn’t a stand-alone disability. An oft-cited 2000 study by the National Council on Aging linked untreated hearing loss to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, in part because subjects weren’t confident in social situations. As a result, they grew angry, irritable, and often withdrew from the world around them. More recent research also associates hearing loss with an increased risk of cognitive decline. A pair of studies out of Johns Hopkins in 2011 and 2013 found that participants with hearing loss were up to five times more likely to develop dementia and experienced a faster cognitive decline than people with normal hearing.
While the Hopkins research doesn’t show that hearing aids help limit the problems, the authors did note social isolation (linked by other research to both dementia and depression) as a possible cause. If hearing aids would help me be more social, then that alone is reason enough to wear them.