10 ways to fight back against hearing and vision loss
By Maria Masters
When your eyes and ears start playing tricks on you, use these strategies to help make the most of your senses
Menus and road signs looking a little fuzzy? Wondering why your friends are all mumbling? There are lots of reasons why you may suddenly struggle with your eyesight or hearing. And yes, growing older is one of them. About a third of people in the U.S. between ages 65 and 74 have at least some hearing loss. For people older than 75, that ratio jumps to half, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Vision loss is another concern for older adults, and the odds increase with age. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), only about 1% of people between 65 and 69 have what’s known as low vision. This means their sight can’t be corrected with eyeglasses, medication or surgery. But by age 80, about 17% of people have it. These are not reasons to panic, though. Despite the possibility of hearing or vision problems (or both) down the road, there are ways you can make the best of your eyesight and hearing to live a full, active life. Here’s some important advice from eye health providers and audiologists.
Get your eyes checked regularly
Maybe all you need is a new pair of glasses with a stronger prescription. But then again, you might need a little extra intervention, says Bhavani Iyer, O.D., a low vision diplomate and clinical associate professor with the University of Texas McGovern Medical School. “Eye diseases can be sneaky, because they don’t always show symptoms early on. Or you may have noticed a change but just think you need new glasses,” says Dr. Iyer. That’s why a proper diagnosis is so important. Let your eye health provider know if you’ve been noticing any of the following:
- Blind spots in your side vision (this could signal glaucoma)
- Cloudy spots in your field of vision (possible cataracts)
- A blurry or empty space in the center of your vision (a sign of age-related macular degeneration - also called AMD)
- Straight lines appearing wavy (another AMD sign)
These eye conditions are among the leading causes of vision loss, the NEI reports. And the earlier they’re caught, the sooner you can start treatment to stop or slow down the progression, says Dr. Iyer. That way you can protect your remaining vision. Among her tips: healthy foods, regular exercise, sunglasses year-round and no smoking.
Keep an “eye” on your diabetes
If you have diabetes, make sure your eye health provider knows about it, says Dr. Iyer. That’s because people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk of diabetic retinopathy. With this eye condition, the blood vessels in your retina can be damaged, leading to vision loss. (The retina lines the back of your eye and sends visual images to your brain.) The top cause is uncontrolled blood sugar.
Usually, there are no early symptoms. But as it progresses, you may see “floaters,” or dark, floating spots or streaks, says Dr. Iyer. If these appear, seek treatment right away.
Even if you don’t have symptoms, an eye health provider can spot diabetic retinopathy during an exam and discuss ways to slow it down. This is one reason it’s so important for people with diabetes to keep up with regular eye exams.
The best way to avoid eye damage is by working with your health care provider to manage your blood sugar, says Dr. Iyer. You may need to adjust your eating or exercise habits or your medications. Or all 3. For more advanced cases of diabetic retinopathy, your provider may recommend medication injections, laser treatments or surgery.
6 low-vision rehab tricks to try
Even if your vision can’t be fixed, you may still be able to do more with your existing eyesight than you think, says Dr. Iyer. That’s where vision rehabilitation comes in. “Vision rehabilitation doesn’t cure people’s vision loss. It teaches people how to use their existing vision so they can keep living their lives to the fullest,” she says. To do this, low vision therapists work in conjunction with low vision providers to teach people how to use devices and new strategies around the house. Here are a few to try:
- Decorate with contrasting colors. Put colored tape at the edge of the stairs, which can be a fall hazard. “Often, people with low vision will have depth perception issues,” says Dr. Iyer. “So if the carpet and the stairs are all the same color, judging one step to the next will be a problem.” Having some sort of contrast at the edge of each step will make the stairs safer.
- Rotate your tableware. Dr. Iyer suggests using dark or light plates to see your food better. Use a dark plate if you’re eating rice, fish and other lighter-colored foods. Use a lighter plate if you’re eating something like leafy greens, black beans or blueberries. If you don’t already own dark and light dishes, consider picking up a small set of plates and bowls that contrast with what you have.
- Change the font on your devices. If you have trouble reading small print, use extra-large font size and change the font to bold, Dr. Iyer suggests. If black type is hard to read, try changing it to a white font on a black background. To make these changes on a smartphone, go to Settings and look for Display & Brightness (for Apple) or Accessibility (for Android). On a computer, each browser may be a bit different, but you can usually adjust font sizes in the Preferences section.
- Use voice-activation technology. Smartphones, tablets and smart home “assistants” each have voice activation features that can read text, follow commands and more.
- Zoom in. There’s a wide range of magnifying devices that can enlarge the text on newspapers, computers, labels and books. These can help you to read the fine print, says Dr. Iyer. Some of these devices include handheld magnifiers and computer video magnifier systems.
- Change the lighting. Sometimes, making a room brighter can help you see better. Other times, dimming the lights or using anti-glare filters may work better, Dr. Iyer says. Experiment until you find your optimal level.
Go in for a hearing screening
Your vision isn’t the only one of your senses to benefit from regular checkups. Adults older than 50 should get a hearing screening every 3 years, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) advises. This is true even if your hearing seems just fine.
That’s because it’s common for adults to lose at least some of their hearing with age. In fact, there’s even a name for age-related hearing loss: presbycusis.
“As you get older, the tiny, delicate sensory cells in your inner ear, which pick up sound and send a signal to your brain, become damaged, leading to hearing loss,” says Steve DeMari, an ASHA-certified audiologist in the Chicago area.
According to the National Institute on Aging, damage to the inner ear can be caused by everything from exposure to loud noises to health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Certain medications can also cause inner ear damage.
Whatever the cause, it’s best to catch these slight dips in hearing early so you can start treatment early, says DeMari. Early action may help lower your risk of some health problems associated with hearing loss, including falls and cognitive decline.
Addressing hearing loss also helps you stay social, says DeMari. People who can’t hear well tend to have trouble following or taking part in conversations, he explains. They often decide it’s easier to spend less time with family and friends. This can lead to loneliness and isolation, which can lead to depression.
4 ways to adjust to hearing loss
If you’re having trouble hearing, the solution isn’t always to turn up the volume. After all, loud noise can cause more damage to your hearing. What can help are adaptive steps that begin with asking your health care provider to check your hearing. They may be able to find the cause of the problem. They can also refer you to a hearing specialist, if needed. Next, consider these ideas to help lessen the impact:
Get fitted for a hearing aid. Hearing aids can amplify sounds and improve your hearing. But despite their usefulness, only about 1 in 5 people who would benefit from a hearing aid use one, the NIDCD reports.
Not all hearing aids work in the same way, either. The right one for you will depend on the level of your hearing loss and the type of hearing loss you have.
“You need to see a trained audiologist who can evaluate you and set up the hearing aid properly,” DeMari says. “No two hearing losses are the same.”
- Ask about “aural rehabilitation.” Some audiologists offer one-on-one or group programs that teach strategies to help you adjust. For example, when you first get a hearing aid, you’ll need to retrain your brain to respond to sounds that you were missing. You might also learn about reading visual cues, lip reading and navigating noisier environments.
- Look into assistive listening devices. These are tools that connect to your TV, phone, stereo or radio — even your hearing aid. They minimize background noise so you’re better able to hear the people you’re with. They can also override poor acoustics in a room.
Use caption technology. With few exceptions, by law all TV programs must include closed captioning so you can read along with the dialogue and receive important televised emergency information. Newer TVs have the feature built in. If you have an older TV, your cable or satellite TV provider must provide it. (Call your TV provider for help activating the captioning.)
Watching shows or videos on your computer? Look for the CC icon near the bottom menu bar of the video and tap or click it. (Note that federal law only requires closed captioning on videos that have been shown on TV with captioning.)
Also, think about using a captioned telephone or smartphone. These devices show the caller’s words on a small screen, so you can read along as the person talks.