My Definition of Healthy Aging
When Alice* was 35 years old, her children contracted mumps. She soon got the virus as well, and it led to a profound hearing loss in her right ear. For 47 years, she relied solely on her left ear for hearing. As she approached her 80th birthday, age-related changes affected the hearing in her “good ear,” so she eventually got a hearing aid for that side. Yet the combination of one hearing aid and one essentially nonfunctional ear was not adequate for Alice’s busy social life and full-time academic career. So at 82 years of age, she received a cochlear implant.
Cochlear implants are devices that electrically stimulate the auditory nerve, allowing the individual to perceive sound. They have an inner portion which is surgically placed inside the head, and an external portion which usually sits behind the ear. The external portion looks a lot like a behind-the-ear hearing aid. Visit the National Institutes of Health to learn more about how cochlear implants work.
Some people have few problems adjusting to their cochlear implant(s). For those who struggle, I’m told it can be a confusing and frustrating experience. It is a time-consuming process, as people need to re-train their brains to identify and comprehend important sounds, and to “ignore” insignificant sounds. For example, Alice was unable to differentiate environmental sounds from one another, making refrigerators, lawn mowers, and speech sound similar to one another for the first few weeks. But Alice was exceptionally motivated. She would take off her hearing aid when she was home, to force herself to use the cochlear implant side. After a few months, she was able to fully comprehend speech with that side. And now that she had access to higher frequencies, she could hear her grandson’s little voice for the first time.
It is difficult to explain how inspiring this story is to me. At 82 years of age, Alice not only underwent elective surgery, she also managed to re-train the way her brain had been working for the past 47 years. Alice accepted the age-related changes happening to her body and said, now how can I improve my life? To me, that is the true definition of healthy aging.
For more information on hearing loss and older adults, visit the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Julianne Remus is a Research Assistant at the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing and a Masters Candidate in Communicative Sciences & Disorders at New York University.
*Names have been changed