Masks are unmasking what many people didn’t realize: They have hearing loss

Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/TNS
·4 min read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Only a few months into the pandemic, Jenny Weathers, 58, stared at the mask covering her son’s mouth and came to a harsh realization.

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

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

“I might have done something about my hearing at some point,” she said, “but I would probably not be wearing hearing aids now if not for the pandemic.”

For Floridians of all ages, the last two years of the pandemic have been particularly difficult for hearing concerns. Researchers are still studying to what extent COVID causes hearing loss, tinnitus or balance problems and the long-term consequences of the virus. But precautions such as masks and social distancing have magnified hearing problems.

Matthew Jones, a hearing instrument specialist with Beltone in Central Florida, says he has seen a number of patients who say their hearing has worsened since the start of the pandemic.

He helps them realize it’s not their hearing that has changed, it’s their recognition of a problem: “If you cover somebody’s lips, the ability to lipread has been taken away.

“And then even further, the ability to visually capture the tone of the conversation,” he said. “If you have a hearing loss, picking up on those types of cues is very helpful. So the mask really takes away quite a bit of what you can pick up on.”

Jones, Beltone’s director for the East Coast, said the people who ordinarily wouldn’t seek help, those with mild hearing loss, are coming in for tests. “They have almost been catapulted into this because some of the help that they had been getting either consciously or subconsciously through the use of visual cues was taken away.”

Several factors can cause hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss comes on gradually as a person gets older and often occurs because of 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.

“Generally, we don’t see people seeking help until about 65 because that’s when it becomes more significant, more debilitating,” Jones said.

In Lake Worth, Susan Horne, who operates the Beltone location on Jog Road, said frustrated family members usually accompany her patients. “The patient thinks everyone else is mumbling,” she said. “And that’s not the case.”

“I think COVID-19 and this whole pandemic has brought to the forefront how much people have been missing,” she said. “If you were in denial prior to the pandemic, you certainly do recognize now that you have an issue.”

There is some evidence to suggest COVID infection may contribute to hearing loss in some patients, but research studies have been limited.

Horne said she believes that for some people, a COVID infection did contribute to their hearing loss. “If you had a high fever or were put on high-intensity antibiotics, it can affect your hearing.”

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

Over 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, said she encouraged her husband, Michael, to get hearing aids.

“He says everyone now is talking loud.” Seeing his success, she is urging some of her friends to get them, too. “It’s hard when they want you to repeat things,” she said.

Michael Leinwand, 93, runs a real estate brokerage, wears his hearing aids dutifully and realizes how important it is to hear well. “I’m not reliant on reading lips anymore.”

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