Getting in the loop: Experts raise awareness of how technology can aid those with hearing loss

Although it’s not a new technology, the hearing induction or hearing loop is one that hearing loss sufferers wish would become more commonplace.

“People who can hear have no idea what’s its like for someone who has hearing loss,” said Juliette Sterkens, with Fox Valley Hearing Loop in Oshkosh.

Hearing loss is a common problem caused by noise, aging, disease and heredity. Approximately 36 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss. In addition, 2 to 3 out of 1,000 babies born in the United States each year have a detectable hearing loss that can affect their speech, language, social and cognitive development, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.

And when children and adolescents are added, the total is more than 48 million, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Audiologists and hearing communications specialists are on a mission to provide better hearing solutions for those who have trouble hearing. They contend the loop is the easiest, clearest solution to help deaf and hard of hearing people who attend public events and facilities. It uses wiring that generates a magnetic field around a designated area that can be picked up by a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Experts say it generates a clear real-time signal without the static or delay that other systems present.

Even hearing loss sufferers who are not using a hearing aid can pick up the signal by using a headset. Portable units that are placed in front of a person who is speaking allow for better one-on-one communication with a hearing-impaired person.

While provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act require public facilities to provide accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing people, some install a variety of solutions, including an FM broadcast system and infrared systems. So far, few places have installed the loop. They have been slow to catch on.

That is starting to change somewhat, notes Lisa Zovar, owner of Hear Here! Hearing Loops, a Madison-based loop installation company.

In May, Zovar, who recently had a cochlear implant operation, was a member of a panel who demonstrated a loop system that was recently installed at the Kenosha County Department of Human Services Aging and Disability Resource Center. The center also has portable units that are used on counters and in offices where counselors meet with clients.

Zovar is among a growing number of hearing specialists who are on an educational awareness campaign to inform the public about hearing loss, treatments and technologies to accomodate a problem many do not know much about.

The technology is widely used in Scandinavian countries and throughout parts of Europe, contends Skerkens, an advocate for the Hearing Loss Association of America. Sterkens, a retired audiologist, presented her case Friday at the 26th annual Aging Well conference hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus.

Slowly they are being installed in churches, auditoriums and public buildings across the country and throughout Wisconsin. At least two others have been installed in Kenosha County.

Zovar said the hearing loop is effective because the system can serve as many people as are in the looped area. The wiring is installed in the ceiling and provides coverage to hearing aid wearers who turn on a telecoil in their hearing aids. She noted that often some people do not like to wear their hearing aids because of a stigma attached to them, and because in some cases they do not work as well as they are intended to work.

However, newer hearing aids with the telecoil can make for a much better hearing communication experience.

“They work so well that the hearing aid wearer who is sitting in a looped area may be able to hear a presentation, movie or other event better than a hearing person sitting beside them,” explained Sterkens.

Causes, effects of hearing loss

Do you find yourself turning up the volume of the television or radio? Do you have a hard time hearing when you are in church, an auditorium or other places where there are a lot of people and background noises?

If so, you may one of a growing number of people who are suffering from some degree of hearing loss. Withdrawal from conversations, trouble hearing consonants, difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise or in a crowd of people, also are signs of hearing loss.

Hearing loss may be gradual or sudden. Hearing loss may be very mild, resulting in minor difficulties with conversation, or as severe as complete deafness. The speed with which hearing loss occurs may give clues as to the cause, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports that hearing loss affects approximately 48 million Americans; about 500,000 of them are Wisconsin residents.

Hearing loss is a major health issue that is the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease, according to the HLAA. About 20 percent of Americans report some degree of hearing loss. At age 65, one out of three people has a hearing loss.

Hearing loss can be attributed to genetics, disease, exposure to noise, medications and as a result of the natural aging process. The HLAA notes that 60 percent of people with hearing loss are either in the workforce or in educational settings.

In adults, the most common causes of hearing loss are noise and aging. There is a strong relationship between age and reported hearing loss. In older people, a hearing loss is often confused with, or complicated by, such conditions as dementia.

Noise-induced hearing loss may happen slowly over time or suddenly. Being exposed to everyday noises, such as listening to very loud music, being in a noisy work environment, or using a lawn mower, can lead to hearing loss over many years.

Sudden, noise-induced hearing loss from gunfire and explosions is the number one disability caused by combat in current wars.

Hearing loss can affect a person’s self esteem, cause them to withdrawal from social situations and even cause emotional problems. It also can have an effect upon a person’s spouse or significant other because they too may withdraw from social activities.

“Hearing loss can affect a person’s quality of life,” explained Juliette Sterkens, a retired audiologist and a principal with the Oshkosh-based Fox Valley Hearing Loop. “If a person can’t hear, they are less likely to go to the theater or to a concert. If they do not go, their partner also is not likely to go to the theater.”

Moreover, hearing loss can have an effect upon a person’s income.

While those in the workplace with the mildest hearing losses show little or no drop in income compared with their normal hearing peers, income declines as hearing loss increases, according to the HLAA.

People suffering from hearing loss have fewer educational and job opportunities because of impaired communication. Social withdrawal can mean reduced access to services.

Facts about hearing loss

* About 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.

* More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

* Approximately 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) age 18 and over report some trouble hearing.

* Men are more likely than women to report having hearing loss.

* One in 8 people in the United States (13 percent, or 30 million) age 12 years or older has hearing loss in both ears, based on standard hearing examinations.

* About 2 percent of adults age 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. The rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults age 55 to 64. Nearly 25 percent of those age 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.

* The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders estimates that approximately 15 percent of Americans (26 million people) between the ages of 20 and 69 have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to noise at work or during leisure activities.

* Roughly 10 percent of the U.S. adult population, or about 25 million Americans, has experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in the past year.

* Among adults age 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 1 in 3 (30 percent) has ever used them. Even fewer adults age 20 to 69 (approximately 16 percent) who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them.

* As of December 2012, approximately 324,200 cochlear implants have been implanted worldwide. In the United States, roughly 58,000 devices have been implanted in adults and 38,000 in children.

* Five out of 6 children experience ear infection (otitis media) by the time they are 3 years old.

— Source: National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders

Getting in the loop: Experts raise awareness of how technology can aid those with hearing loss

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