What is Early-stage Hearing Loss? And How to Tell if You Have It

Hearing informs and enhances most aspects of our lives, but it can be hard to identify early stage hearing loss, simply because we fail to notice it. It is important to pay attention to the signs, though, since it's not just our quality of life at stake, but our safety. 

Our hearing tunes us in to the beauty and interest of the world, but it also alerts us to dangers and prevents accidents. Just as importantly, it facilitates communication, and if we can't hear our friends, kids and colleagues, then will quickly find ourselves living in a pretty flat and lifeless world, not to mention a frustrating one. Learning the signs of early stage hearing loss lets you get a jump on the problem before it begins to negatively impact day-to-day life.

The Science of Hearing

When an object vibrates the air around it, it sends a wave traveling through space to your eardrum, which also vibrates, and sets the inner bones, hairs and membranes of your ear in motion to translate sound to your brain. Higher frequency sounds have a higher pitch, such as a flute or a bird chirping, while lower frequency sounds have a lower pitch, like a tuba or a bass singer. 

Early stage hearing loss is often first noticed in one ear and can be detected from damage to the nerves and intricate inner workings of the ear. The catch, though, is what's known as “hidden hearing loss,” which hearing tests aren’t designed to detect. Often caused by a loss of synapses, it's a failure of the brain to translate sound signals into language. If you pass a hearing test but still struggle with hearing in noisy places, talk to your doctor about screening for hidden hearing loss.

The Mental Impact

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the US, and is twice as prevalent as diabetes or cancer, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

Fear of what the future holds can be a traumatic challenge to those with early stage hearing loss. Yet it’s important to focus on what you know now, experts say, even if it’s upsetting. So, watch for a sense that your hearing is impaired, even if you’ve passed a hearing test. Are you misunderstanding people? Becoming easily distracted in noisy places? It’s normal to doubt yourself in these circumstances and natural to want to retreat to a quiet place, for which reason early stage hearing loss can be hard to catch. 

A study by The National Council on the Aging showed every decibel drop in perception in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7 percentMoreover, of 2,300 hearing-impaired adults age 50 and older, they found that those with untreated hearing loss were more likely to report depression, anxiety, and paranoia and were less likely to participate in organized social activities, compared to those who sought medical help.

How do you know if you’ve drifted down this path? The signs vary, but they all interfere with normal daily life. Take control back by contacting your doctor, or at least, tell a loved one that you’re struggling to hear clearly. 

How to Cope

How can you battle the unsettling feelings associated with early stage hearing loss? 

  • Don’t panic. It’s natural to be concerned when you realize you have trouble hearing, especially in crowded places. Leaping to the worst possible conclusion wastes time and energy.
  • Take a breath. First things first, make an appointment with your physician to get your hearing checked. Ask for an in-depth review, including the prospect of hidden hearing loss.
  • Reach out to ask friends, family and social-media groups to learn of others’ experiences, medical references and moral support. You may be surprised how many people have had similar experiences or know others who have.
  • Write about your feelings and observations, and if necessary, talk with a therapist. 
  • Keep in touch with your social and professional networks as you work through the situation. Adjust short-term communication styles to stay on top of and even advance your skills. 
  • Find technology devices that can help. Hearing loss, at any stage, can be helped to allow you to live fully and to enjoy the moments you feel you’ve been missing out on.
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