Pursue Your Career With Hearing Aids, No Matter Your Age

Updated: Nov 03, 2022
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For people who have only ever experienced a world at top volume, it’s hard to imagine living life with hearing loss, let alone enjoying a rewarding career while dealing with it. But hearing loss is far more common than most people realize, and whether it’s incurred on the job or not, it doesn’t have to change your life or professional aspirations.

There are people with hearing loss working in all professional arenas: midwives, NASA engineers, standup comics, archaeologists, nurses, chefs, circus performers, actors, professional athletes, even singers. Approximately 48 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), making it the third-most common chronic physical condition after hypertension and arthritis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.

Hearing loss can affect one or both ears, and it is classified as mild, moderate, severe, or profound (very little or total deafness). The threshold for healthy hearing is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the ability to perceive at least 20 decibels in each ear. For comparison’s sake, that’s equivalent to the sound of leaves rustling, or someone whispering from 5 feet away.

“Audiologists try to say normal hearing is like normal vision, 20/20 (20 decibels or less in each ear is considered normal),” said Dr. Rachel Magann Faivre, Au.D, a longtime audiologist and owner of Oklahoma City-based ASH Audiology. “It’s just a number that people know because of eyes and helps them remember that ears are the same.”

While not all causes of hearing loss are known, exposure to loud sounds is just one source. Hearing loss can have a variety of causes, including genetics (which sometimes don’t manifest until later in life), infections, and head-related trauma—any of which can occur at any age.

Unaddressed hearing loss can not only cause difficulties with communication and speech, it has also been strongly associated with social isolation and loneliness, which the CDC points out already disproportionately affects older Americans and is strongly associated with higher risks for serious health conditions.

Regular screenings are important to identify any issues as early as possible. “As often is the case with health issues, most adults do not have their hearing tested until they experience issues,” said Dr. Daniel Troast, Au.D, an audiologist with HearUSA. “Hearing loss has comorbidities with other health conditions, including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and dementia. Anyone with one of those conditions should have their hearing tested, even if they do not suspect hearing loss.”

In fact, hearing loss is associated with nine of the top 10 chronic conditions in adults 65-plus, noted Dr. Faivre. This also includes hypertension, kidney disease, smoking, depression, and thyroid disease.

One study, which was published in November 2020 in the journal Neuron, theorizes that hearing loss experienced in midlife may be a risk factor for as many as 9% of dementia cases later in life.

On average, Dr. Troast said, adults with no hearing concerns should have their hearing tested at least every three years. Anyone who is persistently exposed to loud noise should have their hearing tested at least yearly, as should anyone who has been diagnosed with hearing loss.

People with hearing loss wait an average of seven years before seeking help for their condition, according to the HLAA. When you delay a diagnosis, you’re also delaying access to any resources that can help with hearing loss.

Speaking of resources, the recent news that some hearing aids will be sold without a prescription in the United States is one new option. Over-the-counter hearing aids are intended for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. The new regulations went into effect on October 17, 2022, and companies have until April 14, 2023 to achieve full compliance. For people with more severe hearing loss, cochlear implants, which send electric signals to the auditory nerve, may be an option.

With or without these aids, hearing loss at any level doesn’t have to be an obstacle to living a healthy, happy life—or achieving your goals. As the following stories demonstrate, people with hearing loss can accomplish incredible things and live very full lives.

Joan Tenaglia image
Joan Tenaglia, 58
Opera singer, Philadelphia, Pa.
Photo credit: Francesca Tenaglia

“Music has been my life since the time I was five,” said Joan Tenaglia. She started playing piano in high school, dabbled with the harp for a while, and sang in church choirs. Her voice was so strong that by age 13 she was being asked to perform at local weddings and funerals. “I was paid $25 for my first wedding and I was so excited,” she recalled.

Tenaglia didn’t know much about opera before attending the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (today called University of the Arts), but at the time, she recalled, the only option was to study classical music. She met her husband, a fellow opera singer, at school and went on to have a successful career performing concerts for symphonies and opera companies nationwide. All her singing was done on the strength of her voice alone: “Opera singers don’t use microphones,” she explained.

A soprano, she learned to sing in six languages, including Russian, Italian, French, and German. For 25 years, she was a soloist in her church choir. Tenaglia hadn’t realized she had any issues with her hearing when she took her son to an ear, nose, and throat doctor in 2006. “I was diagnosed by accident,” she said.

She had been feeling slight pressure, like her ears were clogged, and thinking she might have a cold as well, so she asked the doctor if he could take a look. Her ears looked fine, but a round in the sound booth indicated significant hearing loss. Tenaglia, who was only 44 years old at the time, was in shock. “I said, ‘Excuse me? I’m an opera singer. I’m a musician. What can you do for me?’”

Doctors couldn’t tell Tenaglia what exactly had caused her hearing loss. Some said it was the result of an autoimmune condition, while others said it could be genetic (although neither of her children or her first grandchild have hearing loss), age-related, or a result of her exposure to loud sounds in her career.

In the course of seeking treatment, Tenaglia had a botched surgery that essentially burned a hole in her ear drum, causing further hearing loss, and also experienced tinnitus, a ringing sensation that can affect one or both ears intermittently. Although she eventually had another surgery to help repair the damage, her hearing would never be perfect. She now has severe-to-profound hearing loss, close to the highest level. “Without aids, I hear some sounds but no conversations,” she said. She hadn’t realized it, but she had unconsciously taught herself to compensate for her hearing loss by reading lips.

After her diagnosis, Tenaglia fell into a severe depression. “It took my confidence away for the longest time,” she said. “Hearing loss can be very isolating, especially during the pandemic because you can’t read lips when someone has a mask on.”

Although hearing aids helped, Tenaglia didn’t want anyone to know she had them, so she grew her hair long to cover them. “I didn’t want the conductor or my fellow singers to know I was deaf because let’s face it, if I had let anyone know I had hearing loss, I would have lost work. No one is going to take a chance on a deaf opera singer.”

Fortunately, she did have a lot of support from her family (her husband and daughter both learned American Sign Language to communicate with her) and the Deaf community. “I have to say that the Deaf community is probably the most welcoming community I have ever been a part of,” Tenaglia said. She is a member of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, which she said is “a nice way to stay connected to people and stay on top of new studies and technology.”

After singing with hearing loss since 2006, she eventually disclosed her hearing loss publicly at a concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia in 2016. “It was the best singing I ever did,” she recalled. “My confidence came back.”

Although Tenaglia said it takes her longer to learn her music than it used to, and she can’t do full-fledged operas on stage anymore—mostly because the tinnitus makes it difficult to focus—she has done concerts with a chorus and a piano, but not an orchestra. “The wonderful thing that my hearing aids gave me was the singer’s technique of feeling the vibrations in my head,” she said. “When I put the hearing aids in, it opens up that space for me.” The aids have different settings including one designed for concerts.

They’re not perfect, and she still has what she calls “bad hearing days” due to barometric pressure or tinnitus. She can struggle to follow conversation in groups, and with background noises from things like window air conditioning units. Tenaglia also estimated she has spent around $70,000 over the years on hearing equipment, just so she could sing (hearing aids are not covered by her insurance).

But she can stream music, TV, and phone calls through her hearing aids using Bluetooth technology. She can still sing and even attended and enjoyed Elton John’s ongoing farewell tour. With her hearing aids, she can still hear her children’s and grandson’s voices. “I can still be who I am,” she said.

Her Advice
“My motto is ‘Deaf Can,’ but we should use any tools that are out there.”
“Sound is not always your friend.”
“One thing I would ask people is please be patient when we ask if you can repeat yourself.”

50 million people experience tinnitus, and 90% of them also have hearing loss. SOURCE: HLAA

Gayle Sanchez Image
Gayle Sanchez, 39
Tattoo artist, Orlando, Fla.

Although tattooing people is primarily a visual job, professionals know that listening to the tone of the tattoo needle helps guide shading and outlines. It’s not something that most people would think twice about—unless, like Gayle Sanchez, you can’t hear it.

Sanchez was born into a hearing family, but as a preemie, she weighed only around 3 pounds. While the average number of babies born with hearing loss in the United States is 1 to 3 out of every 1,000, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, that number shoots up to 32 out of 1,000 for babies admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit, many of whom are premature (born before 37 weeks).

Sanchez was one of these babies, but her hearing loss wasn’t discovered until she was around three years old, when her mom noticed that she didn’t respond to her name being called. She now has profound hearing loss in both ears, so without hearing aids, she can only feel vibrations. As it turns out, this ability would ultimately help her in her chosen career.

“Not in a million years did I think I’d be a tattoo artist,” Sanchez said. Although she was always artistic and worked in many different mediums—drawing, watercolors, murals, and even taxidermy—the one she’d never even considered was ink on human skin. But a cousin told her he had a recurring dream that she became a tattoo artist. “My culture believes dreams are signs,” said Sanchez, whose mother is part Egyptian and part Turkish. (Her own tattoos, including one depicting King Tut and another of a scarab that she says represents teamwork, pay homage to her heritage.)

So she enrolled at Miami Tattoo Co., a school in South Beach, to learn the trade. “I was the only one who was deaf,” Sanchez recalled. Each student was assigned to a more experienced tattoo artist as a kind of apprenticeship. “My mentor was very frustrated with me because I could not hear the machine. I had to sit very close to him and pay attention to the vibrations instead.” While there are six month programs, Sanchez took four years to graduate.

“I almost gave up,” she said. Her mother encouraged her to stick with it, telling her that babies had to crawl before they could walk, and that once she got the hang of tattooing, no one would be better at it than her.

Now, Sanchez has been a tattoo artist for 13 years, and counting. “I love my job so much,” she said. “To be honest, I’m glad that I’m deaf. I’ve met many hearing tattoo artists. They try to create what’s in their mind on paper, but noise is a distraction. Me? No. My mind keeps drawing, unlimited.”

She specializes in realistic portraits, which she loves because without hearing someone, she perceives their personality through their face and expressions. “A portrait tells me your life story,” she explained. “Your face is my hearing.”

Sanchez, who is fluent in ASL, works at a tattoo shop that’s deaf-owned, but her real passion is travel. She has what she calls “heavy wanderlust,” and fortunately, her work makes fulfilling that desire to roam possible. She’s often contacted on social media (@deafink1) by other people who are deaf and will travel internationally to tattoo them. “Deaf people feel more comfortable making requests to me, and I can understand their imagination more than a hearing person can,” she explained.

So far, she’s been to at least 25 different countries. “My goal is 30,” she said. “I don’t care about the money, I care about the beautiful experience of life.”

Her Advice
“Don’t give up. Nothing is impossible.”
“What’s right in front of you is your opportunity.”
“If you’re talking to someone with hearing loss, it’s more important to speak slowly and louder, especially if you have an accent, or a big beard.”

Dane Jackson, 29,
Professional whitewater kayaker, Washington, D.C.
Credit: Corey Rich / Red Bull Content Pool

Whitewater kayaking is in Dane Jackson’s blood. His dad, Eric, is a four-time world champion, Olympic contender, and founder of Jackson Kayak. “My whole childhood consisted of traveling around with my family wherever my dad wanted to kayak,” Jackson recalled.

As an infant, he had a front row seat to the sport on his dad’s lap, and by age two, “I was stealing people’s boats around the water to paddle around whenever I could,” he recalled. That was also the age he said he ran his first river solo.

That kind of early, all-in training likely helped Jackson become one of the best whitewater paddlers in the sport today. For the uninitiated, whitewater kayaking is an extremely demanding and adrenaline-filled sport. His professional accomplishments include launching a “first descent”—the term used in adventure sports to refer to the first time someone has braved the uncharted territory of a new route—of a waterfall in Mexico, among others on rivers worldwide.

He was named “Male Paddler of the Year” in 2021, and just shy of his 30th birthday, Jackson has earned more than 80 first-place finishes in the freestyle category. “Generally I have had a lot of incredible experiences,” he said. “In a sense, my whole career has been a highlight.”

He has something else in common with his dad, though: hearing loss. “I am around 70% deaf in both ears,” he said. He’s not sure if the cause is genetic or due to the fact that he was born three months premature, but he’s dealt with it his whole life. “I wear hearing aids off the water these days,” he said. “I’ve had them for a few years now. I wore them for a little while growing up, then had about a 10-year hiatus, but a few years ago I decided it was definitely time to have them again.”

Jackson is also proficient at lip reading, which he said is not just essential, but “an awesome skill to have.” On the water, he can sometimes catch what other paddlers, or even people standing on the riverbank, are saying, something that he explained “definitely comes in handy from time to time.”

Though he knew sign language fairly well when he was much younger, Jackson doesn’t recall much now, though he said he’d like to learn it again. As far as he knows, his hearing loss is not progressive, but he is aware that certain occupational hazards, such as surfer’s ear, could have an impact. Surfer’s ear (sometimes called swimmer’s ear) is caused by prolonged exposure to cold water or wind and can cause bony growths inside the ear canal that may partially or completely block it.

For the most part, Jackson’s hearing loss has lived up to the name of an “invisible disability.” “I generally can go without someone even knowing I’m deaf,” he said. “In terms of my career, I really don’t have much to complain about. Really the only negatives are that campfires can be tricky, and people might just have to repeat themselves a few times.”

It’s true that Jackson is probably better known for his Barbie-pink kayak—an impulse purchase in 2013 that has become his trademark—than for being a deaf paddler. And he’s fine with that. “I don’t necessarily feel I need [my deafness] to be the first thing people know about me, it’s just an interesting fact,” he said. “I guess for me, it’s hard to consider it a disability when I have trouble finding a way it negatively affects the thing I love to do most. Especially when I see so many amazing people overcoming huge obstacles every day to do their passions.”

His Advice
“Let each person determine for themselves how much of a disadvantage it is. Whether they have 25%, 50%, or 100% hearing loss, it doesn’t mean you first have to assume their life is infinitely harder. They might feel differently.”

“Throughout history it’s not hard to look for inspiration in just about any type of career, from music to athletics. If they’ve all been able to do it, you definitely can. Allow them to be your inspiration.”

Safety and Sound at Work

Roughly 12% of working Americans have hearing difficulty, according to the CDC, and of those cases, nearly a quarter are caused by exposure to extreme noise levels and occupational exposures on the job. Occupational hearing loss can be caused by repeated exposure to noises of 85 decibels or higher, the equivalent of a blender, noisy restaurant, or average movie theater. Surprisingly, hearing loss can also be caused by exposure to certain chemicals that make the ear more susceptible to the damaging effects of hazardous noise.

Clearly, some jobs pose more of a risk to your hearing than others. While you most commonly think of people who work in concert venues, on construction sites, or in combat as being at risk, noise levels in many offices and even classrooms can be quite high too. Additionally, hearing loss is the most common service-related disability experienced by American veterans, according to the HLAA.

So, besides investing in earplugs or switching careers, what can you do? Consider the environment where you work. More than two-thirds of Americans said they consider the noise levels of work when making future employment decisions, according to the Employment & Work Acoustics National Noise Report conducted by Quiet Mark USA.

Some employers may be open to improving the acoustics of their office space, or allowing employees to work remotely where they can better control the space. “The American with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for people with hearing loss,” noted Dr. Faivre. “The Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation is a great resource for professionals and consumers for all things related to occupational hearing protection.”

There are also helpful apps like SoundPrint, which was developed by Gregory Scott, an entrepreneur with hearing loss who was frustrated with not knowing how to find quiet meeting spots in new cities when he traveled.

According to the app’s data, 50% of the restaurants in Manhattan’s Lower East Side have average noise levels that are considered “likely unsafe” for healthy hearing (San Francisco and Dallas are two other extremely noisy cities). “People really underestimate the impact of noise on health,” Scott said, although that has been changing a little since COVID. Using crowdsourced data, the SoundPrint website lists quiet businesses in cities around the world.

If you have some degree of hearing loss, it can help to learn about what accommodations are available. For example, many video conferencing platforms, including Google Meet, offer automated transcription services that provide captions in real time during calls.

Most of all, it pays to educate people about hearing loss and how it will (and won’t) affect your workplace. Acknowledge where it may be difficult and try to find solutions, because ultimately, a reasonable noise level is healthy for everyone.

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WRITTEN BY

Jill Waldbieser is a writer and editor with 20 years' experience in the health, wellness, and lifestyle space. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Oprah Daily, and Everyday Health, among other places. She is also the mother of a son with hearing loss, who lives with her and their dog in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

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MEDICALLY REVIEWED BY

Dr. Magann Faivre is an audiologist with a passion for being active in audiology organizations, particularly concerning advocacy, patients’ rights issues, and teaching student leadership. She intimately grew up around hearing loss and empathizes with patients when discussing their hearing journey. She is dedicated to creating a positive and integrative hearing healthcare experience so patients leave informed and confident. Dr. Magann Faivre currently serves on The Audiology Project’s Board of Directors and on Northern Illinois University’s Advisory Board. She is a longstanding fellow of the American Academy of Audiology and Academy of Doctors of Audiology.

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Waldbieser Jill. "Pursue Your Career With Hearing Aids, No Matter Your Age" AgingInPlace.org. Nov 03, 2022. Web. Jun 14, 2024. <https://aginginplace.org/hearing-aids/finding-success-with-hearing-loss/>.

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Jill Waldbieser, "Pursue Your Career With Hearing Aids, No Matter Your Age," last modified: Nov 03, 2022, https://aginginplace.org/hearing-aids/finding-success-with-hearing-loss/.