The growing, invisible epidemic

Published on: February 26, 2014

Dr. Scott Sims of Physicians Choice Hearing and Dizziness Center in Sun City Center has been serving patients in the community since 1996. Now he is finding the average age of his patients has decreased significantly. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Dr. Scott Sims of Physicians Choice Hearing and Dizziness Center in Sun City Center has been serving patients in the community since 1996. Now he is finding the average age of his patients has decreased significantly. Photo Mitch Traphagen

From the cockpit of my sailboat, I called the NASA Causeway bridge tender via VHF radio to request an opening as a southbound vessel. I heard a reply and saw the bridge opening. I then also saw what appeared to be a northbound barge. I assumed the barge had the right of way, so I circled just north of the now open bridge, waiting.

And I waited. The barge appeared to be only crawling.

I circled and waited some more.

Finally, from the radio I made out, “Captain, this is the NASA Causeway Bridge. CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

The truth was that I couldn’t. At best, I could only understand a few words.

It turned out that what I thought was a barge was actually a floating platform for workers as they painted the bridge. The bridge tender had called repeatedly to tell me to simply go through. He had held the bridge open as I just circled needlessly in front of it.

I am severely hearing impaired. I have state-of-the-art hearing aids but they can only do so much. I can rarely understand voices that I am not familiar with. I can rarely take telephone calls, even though my cell phone beams straight into my hearing aids. I do not understand what I hear on a television, even though, at home, the television sound also beams into my hearing aids. I do not understand what is said in churches or auditoriums. Chances are that if you try to talk to me, particularly in a store or a noisy environment, I will not understand you, either. Unless I can read your lips.

Dr. Scott Sims, an audiologist with Physician’s Choice Hearing and Dizziness Center in Sun City Center, summed up my situation.

“Technology can’t do much for you anymore,” he said. “Your hope now lies in medical science. There is hope there, but it could be 10 years yet.”

It is thanks to Sims that I can function in a reasonably normal fashion. It is thanks to him that I can hear and understand the voices that I am familiar with, at work and with family and friends. It is thanks to him that I can take important telephone calls, and it is thanks to him that I can clip a tiny Bluetooth microphone onto my mom’s shirt so I can make out what she says to me during visits. He has invested many hours in making all of that possible.

Sims describes hearing loss as a growing epidemic. Once generally a concern for the elderly, it is a problem that is silent and invisible, and it is increasingly affecting young people. No one can see hearing loss. But the impact on lives can be enormous.

“It really is terrible,” Sims said. “And people without hearing loss have a very hard time identifying with hearing loss. It is invisible to them. But it is extremely tiring and very frustrating trying to hear and communicate with a hearing loss.”

For many people, some degree of hearing loss is a normal part of aging. Older people tend to be more established in life and beyond the requirements of careers. Alarmingly, however, hearing loss is now appearing in a significant number of young people.

“When I started in Sun City Center in 1996, hearing loss here was almost exclusively elderly,” Sims said. “Now there has been a big change, and the average age of a hearing-aid user has dropped dramatically. The younger generations have been exposed to more and more noise, and that has been harmful to hearing. A fairly significant percentage of children, say between the ages of 10 and 19, probably 11 percent of kids have some form of hearing loss.”

And the impact of that will be long-lasting and difficult to measure. But rest assured, there is and will be an impact to not only impacted individuals but also society at large.

“What the studies indicate is that people feel isolated,” he continued. “My patients will tell me that it may have caused them a lot of anxiety, that is something I hear almost daily. Because we are seeing the onset of hearing loss coming sooner in life, at a younger age, we are seeing a lot of folks that are trying to work, to communicate with customers or supervisors, and it is very stressful if you can’t do that. It is very difficult in this economic environment for everyone, but it is even moreso for people who have trouble communicating. It does cause a lot of anxiety.”

While he has many types of hearing aids available to his patients, Scott Sims is not a hearing-aid salesman per se; he is a doctor of audiology. Businesses have taken notice of increasing cases of hearing loss, and are responding with ever-new products. Many of those products do not require a visit to a hearing center or doctor; they are self-programmable from a smart phone. Such devices tend to be far less technologically advanced and far less expensive than high-tech hearing aids.

Sims does see some benefit to such new products, perhaps in providing those with mild hearing impairments the opportunity to gain some measure of help.

“I think it is great that more and more attention is being focused on new products to assist people with hearing loss,” he said. “A lot of personal amplifier devices are possibly helpful, and it could be a good step for some. And then from there, people could move into customized hearing aids.”

But he also recognizes they may well come with inherent dangers.

“I think, in general, I like the concept to acquaint someone with better hearing,” he continued. “But there is a danger of someone damaging their hearing, and that is where the risk comes in. There have been some devices on the market that have harmed people. True hearing aids are programmed based on your exact hearing loss, unlike someone with a generic amplification device. We have the ability to adjust many different frequencies so we can adjust to something you are comfortable with as an individual. An audiologist has the ability to add a little bit of his or her experience, also.”

But there is also a longer-term problem.

“My other concern,” said Sims, “is that people will try something like that and decide that hearing aids don’t work and they’ll give up. When, in fact, there are a number of wonderful products out there.”

I’m living proof of that. My hearing aids and the associated devices weren’t cheap, but they have changed my life, something difficult on which to put a price tag. But not everyone who visits his office leaves with hearing aids.

“There are any number of people who come in here where I recommend that they wait for hearing aids,” he said. “Our approach is that we rely heavily on the individual — if their problem is relatively minor and they are able to compensate, or if they just need an assistive device, perhaps, for the telephone or television, we can help them with that. I don’t take a sales-driven approach to this.”

Sims and Physicians Choice are one of any number of hearing centers in South Hillsborough. Most have opened to serve an elderly population, but now are finding their patients are increasingly younger. From A+ Hearing Center, Armand’s and Audibel to Beltone and others, hearing loss is taken seriously.

“If you are finding that you are having to ask people to repeat quite a bit, that is a sign that you are having trouble,” Sims said. “If you feel uncomfortable communicating in noisy environments, even restaurants or family get-togethers, if you find that you are starting to avoid those activities or withdraw from them, I would recommend that you have your hearing checked. We have a number of wonderful success stories. Today they are making hearing aids that are much more cosmetically appealing. And that is the direct influence of more young people using hearing aids.”

As a doctor of audiology, Scott Sims’ first priority is the well-being of his patients and of those suffering from hearing loss. Like virtually every hearing center in South Hillsborough, he simply wants to make life better for those he has been trained to help. He is in private practice and does not represent any single company.

“I think it is important for people to visit someone who can provide a number of different brands of hearing aids,” Sims said. “I also recommend second opinions for those who feel more comfortable with that. It is a big decision.”

But it is also an important one, increasingly critical, in fact, as an epidemic of silence continues to grow — particularly among young people.

“With hearing loss, especially in children, it is better to get hearing aids earlier rather than later,” Sims said. “They are young, they are learning. It is critical for children to be able to hear.”

And with that, Sims finished programming a new remote control for my hearing aids. I walked out of his office and realized that I had heard every word he said. That would be called a success story.