Listen up: Get your hearing tested!

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 25 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have a hearing problem. And for people 75 and older, that number rises to nearly 50 percent.

People often think of hearing loss as a fact of life—something that comes along with getting older. But hearing loss can affect anyone. More than 10 percent of U.S. adults between 20 and 64 have hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noise. In total, about 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of the country, have some amount of hearing loss.

Unfortunately, most people don’t get their hearing checked until they notice hearing loss or people around them complain. And that’s a problem, because it can make hearing loss more difficult to treat in the long run. Every adult should have regular hearing tests to monitor for hearing loss.

Are you overdue for a hearing exam? Make an appointment today!

How often should you have a hearing test?

All adults should have their hearing tested at least once every five years, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).

But 2012 ODPHP data show that only about 21 percent of adults between 20 and 69 had a hearing test in the previous five years. And just over 40 percent of adults 70 and older, who are much more likely to have a hearing problem, had a hearing test within the recommended time.

As part of its Healthy People 2020 initiative, the ODPHP hopes to improve these numbers by the year 2020. The goal is a 10 percent improvement for all adults. But even that increase would mean most adults still wouldn’t receive regular screening. We clearly have a lot of work to do to get the word out about the importance of regular hearing tests.

Why do you need regular hearing tests?

Just like we do for blood pressure, it’s helpful for your doctor to have a regular reading of your hearing function. Regular hearing tests help us establish your baseline, or normal, hearing level. That way, if you notice a change in your ability to hear, or if we start to see a change from one test to the next, we can identify how abnormal your hearing function is and when the change likely happened.

If you wait until there’s an issue to have a hearing test, it’s harder to determine the problem. The doctor will have just the current exam to work from. One test won’t help us determine just how much your hearing has changed and when. A problem you may think appeared out of nowhere might have been developing for many years before you noticed.

Different types of hearing loss have very different management and treatment strategies. In some cases, we can correct hearing problems with surgery. In others, we can’t correct the disorder itself, but we can improve hearing ability with the use of hearing aids. The more time we lose trying to find the cause of hearing loss, the more hearing you could lose.

Health effects of hearing loss

Hearing loss is a major problem that is related to multiple health and emotional disorders. As a 2011 study noted, older adults with hearing loss are more likely to have difficulty with the normal activities of daily life than older adults without hearing loss. Hearing loss is associated with several problems in adults of all ages, including:

  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Emotional difficulties
  • Feeling isolated from friends and family members
  • Lower workforce participation

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In addition, many people are unaware of the link between hearing loss and diabetes. Over time, people with diabetes can develop a condition called diabetic neuropathy. This is a type of nerve damage that can cause pain, loss of function or other problems in different areas of the body.

In some cases, hearing loss can be an early warning of diabetic neuropathy. That can be a warning sign for people to get their blood sugars under control. Hearing loss might even be a sign to diagnose diabetes in patients if they’re not already being treated for the disease.

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Talk to your doctor about hearing tests

Most primary care doctors don’t regularly test their patients’ hearing. Your primary care provider can refer you to an audiologist—a doctor who evaluates patients’ hearing and treats hearing disorders.

Hearing tests are covered by most insurance plans with a doctor’s referral. The test takes about 30 minutes to an hour. Our Hearing and Speech team uses sounds with different tones, frequencies and intensities to measure your hearing threshold – the minimum level of sound a person can hear. During the test, the audiologist also will present a series of words to see what percentage you hear correctly and can repeat. The audiologist will plot your results on an audiogram, which is a visual readout of your hearing thresholds, and go over them with you after the test.

Hearing loss can sneak up on us if we’re not careful. But it doesn’t have to. Regular hearing tests can give your doctor a head start toward keeping your hearing strong and healthy as you age.

Safe Solution to Hearing Loss for People with Dementia

Improved Hearing May Decrease, Delay Dementia

Over the last few years, medical researchers made an interesting discovery: Severe hearing loss, in and of itself, contributes to and worsens cognitive decline and dementia among the elderly. While the chicken/egg relationship is not exactly clear—nor the mechanics of how or why—the effect is circular, with one condition feeding upon the other. Both lead to frustration, social withdrawal, depression and anxiety, causing many elderly patients to lose the ability to communicate with or understand the family, friends and others who love and care for them.

But a 2015 study in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery demonstrated marked improvements in thinking and memory skills after hearing- and cognitive-impaired patients received a sophisticated type of hearing device, a cochlear implant.

So why aren’t more patients with both dementia and profound hearing loss receiving the same treatment? The answer may lie in the procedure itself.  

“Typically, a patient undergoing a cochlear implant receives general anesthesia,” says Selena Heman-Ackah Briggs, MD, a head and neck surgeon specializing in hearing loss and ear disease at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. The Hospital Center was the first and, for many years, only site in the metropolitan area to offer cochlear implants for adults. “Yet anesthesia is a known risk factor for patients who are already experiencing cognitive decline, especially if they also have other problems like heart or lung disease.”  

To resolve the dilemma, Dr. Briggs began substituting local sedation for her elderly cochlear implant patients.

“The milder anesthetic lets patients rest comfortably and breathe on their own during the ‘twilight’ procedure, while reducing the risk of complications,” she says. “In-hospital recovery time is cut almost in half, with patients going home the same day.”  

Unlike traditional hearing aids which merely amplify sound, cochlear implants rely upon a sophisticated system of microphones, speech processors, transmitters and other complex parts to interpret and convey electrical impulses directly to the brain. As such, recipients must go through training sessions with audiologists to learn how to “hear” with their new device.

Despite their age, patient response has been remarkable, according to Dr. Briggs.

“Most of my elderly patients are just so excited about being able to hear again,” she says. “Through cochlear implant, we’re restoring their ability to communicate, to be active and functional, and stay in the game of life.”   

To listen to Dr. Briggs’s full podcast interview, click here.

Our specialists are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss. Ready to schedule an appointment? Call us at



As heard on WTOP Radio:

Selena Heman-Ackah, MD

Selena Heman-Ackah Briggs, MD
MedStar Washington Hospital Center

For an appointment, call 202-877-3627.