Masks unmasking undiagnosed hearing loss

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. >> Just months into the pandemic, Jenny Weathers, 58, looked at the mask covering her son’s mouth and came to a stark realization.

“I couldn’t hear and realized I was subconsciously relying on lip-reading,” she said.

Weathers said she now wears hearing aids and can finally participate in conversations with family and friends without having them repeat what they just said.

“I might have done something about my hearing at some point,” she said, “but I probably wouldn’t wear hearing aids now if not for the pandemic.”

For people of all ages, the last two years of the pandemic have been particularly hard to hear. Researchers are still studying the extent to which COVID-19 causes hearing loss, tinnitus and balance problems, as well as the long-term consequences of the virus. But precautions such as masks and social distancing have amplified hearing problems.

Matthew Jones, a hearing aid specialist at Beltone in Central Florida, says he’s seen a number of patients who say their hearing has deteriorated since the pandemic began.

It helps them realize that it’s not their hearing that has changed, it’s their recognition of a problem: “If you cover someone’s lips, the ability to read lips has been taken away from them. And then even further, the ability to visually capture the tone of the conversation,” he said. “If you have hearing loss, picking up those kinds of cues is really helpful. So the mask really takes out a lot of what you can pick up.

Jones said people who wouldn’t normally seek help, those with mild hearing loss, are coming in for testing. “They were almost catapulted into this because some of the help they were consciously or unconsciously receiving through the use of visual cues was taken away from them.”

Several factors can lead to hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss appears gradually as a person ages and often occurs due to changes in the inner ear and auditory nerve. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, men experience hearing loss twice as often as women, but are less likely to seek help.

“Usually we don’t see people seeking help until around age 65, because that’s when it becomes more important, more debilitating,” Jones said.

Susan Horne, who operates a Beltone location in Lake Worth, Florida, said frustrated family members usually accompany her patients. “The patient thinks everyone is mumbling,” she said. “And it’s not.”

“I think COVID-19 and this whole pandemic has brought to the fore the number of missing people,” she said. “If you were in denial before the pandemic, you certainly recognize now that you have a problem.”

Some evidence suggests that COVID-19 infection may contribute to hearing loss in some patients, but research studies have been limited.

Fortunately, Jones said, technology has advanced and hearing aids are smaller, can filter out background noise, stay charged longer and adjust volume levels in different environments. The devices are linked to an app on smartphones and can even be adjusted to better hear someone speaking while wearing a mask. “They can improve your quality of life,” Jones said.

More than 50 million people in the United States have hearing loss, and on average, only 1 in 3 people who need hearing aids actually use them, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Judith Leinwand, 79, of Boca Raton, Florida, said she encouraged her husband, Michael, to get hearing aids.

“He says everyone is talking loud now,” she said. Seeing her success, she urges some of her friends to get them as well.

Michael Leinwand, 93, runs a real estate agency. He wears his hearing aids conscientiously and realizes how important it is to hear well. “I no longer depend on lip reading.”

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