The Ears Have It

Health Tips / The Ears Have It

I guess it’s because ears are basically such unattractive appendages, looking quite a lot like tree fungi attached to the sides of our heads, that we try not to think about them when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

Some women learn early to cover their ears with their hair or to wear distracting earrings. Men are simply out of luck, sporting ears that are often the butt of jokes and enduring a lifetime of PTSD.

Nevertheless, your external ear is good for gathering sound, getting frostbitten, and, during childhood, accumulating dirt.

My own external ears have suffered miserably during the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re compelled to support 1) My hearing aids, 2) The strings of my facemask, 3) My reading glasses, and 4) The headset for patient telephone visits.

Removing my mask often sends the hearing aids flying into space and since their color matches the carpet, retrieval can be challenging.

Middle ear

Your middle ear is involved in balance. The main condition affecting the middle ear is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which is sudden episodes of severe dizziness triggered when your head suddenly shifts positions, like when you place a package on a top shelf or do the downward dog position during yoga. You can read about BPPV here.

Less common middle-ear problems are vestibular migraine, a form of vertigo that may or may not include pain. It’s treated with the same meds used for migraine. There’s also the unpronounceable (unless you know French) mal de debarquemont, the sense of rocking and swaying you feel on a ship except it’s been days or even weeks since returned to dry land.

Inner ear

Your inner ear has everything to do with hearing. As we age, many people experience a slow decline in hearing higher pitches. My own limited hearing in the high range began in childhood, although I wasn’t aware of it then. I didn’t know that birds actually tweeted or why anyone going to the bathroom would call it tinkling. I thought the 88th key on a piano was silent, just there for decoration.

I would learn these finer points of life with my first set of hearing aids decades later.

In fact, the US Army recruiting station thought I was faking my hearing loss until they sent me to a “super-tester” who said “Yeah, he really can’t hear that much.” In the 1960s, there were no noise warnings, so an evening in the first row listening to Blue Cheer (billed as The Loudest Band in Rock History) ended in tinnitus, which has lasted to this day.

Enter the hearing aid and exit the stigma

Well-made hearing aids, readjusted every few years, have changed everything. It’s remarkable how much better a Chopin etude sounds when you can hear the notes the pianist’s right hand is playing. And my wife? She’s definitely more interesting when I can hear what she’s saying. Without going into technical details, good amplification also damps down my tinnitus.

Now, two interesting points. First, people need to get over the stigma of hearing aids. Research has proven beyond any doubt that untreated hearing loss presses the fast- forward button on early dementia (yes, that can include Alzheimer’s).

Health-conscious patients will eat right, exercise, take supplements, and reduce stress, but when it comes to the health of their hearing they’re often too willing to resist the possibility that they need hearing aids.

Furthermore, just last week (the actual purpose of this Health Tip) another study about hearing was published. This one, from Johns Hopkins and published online in JAMA, enrolled more than 15,000 adults, tracking their hearing status along with their physical conditioning from 2011 through 2019.

Read this twice: Researchers found a direct correlation between hearing loss, walking speed, endurance, and balance as well as cognition and mild depression. As hearing declined, so did everything else. If hearing was maintained, everything else remained on track.

Is price an issue?

What surprises me is how frequently (like 90% of the time) when I talk to a patient with hearing loss and refer them to my audiologist for testing they will remark on the price of hearing aids. Maybe it’s because hearing aids are small, like Bluetooth earbuds, so they think they should be cheaper.

It’s true most health insurance doesn’t cover hearing aids, and this is a shame. However, these are people who willingly spend a small fortune on designer eyeglass frames, drive a Batmobile-like Escalade, and purchase pricey coffee tables of aged gingko, but willfully resist spending to improve their hearing.

If I suggested that they purchase their hip replacement from an online discounter in Indiana to get a better deal and that they could drive downstate for the surgery, they’d (correctly) assume I’d gone bonkers.  

If you simply can’t afford a hearing aid, then yes, of course, shop around. More over-the-counter options are on the horizon.

I’ve been seeing Dr. Ronna Fisher and her staff at the Hearing Health Center on Ontario and Michigan for (gosh!) 40 years now. The hearing test is very detailed and the hearing aid is adjusted specifically to your hearing loss.

Here’s A Prediction

Mark my words. There will come a time when we’ll stop using our cars as signals of conspicuous consumption. Our hearing aids could take their place. Imagine overhearing two professionals working out at the East Bank Club.

“Say, I noticed you overheard that deal being discussed between those attorneys from Baker.”

“You’re right. I’m wearing the latest model hearing aid from —–. Small, discreet, multidirectional. They’ve paid for themselves many times over.”

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

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