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Hearing, Voice Problems Worsen Seniors' Communication Skills

Many people experience hearing loss as they age. And many seniors experience difficulty with speaking, too. Now, new research explores the relationship between deafness and hoarseness.

Seth Cohen runs a clinic for people having trouble with their voices. The Duke University doctor kept meeting older people who complained that their voices started failing them around the time their hearing failed or when their spouses' hearing failed.

"We hear the story a lot, but there's not much data on that, to know how common both problems are," Cohen says. "So we wanted to begin to explore that issue."

Cohen asked older people living in retirement communities to take part in his study. His participants were mostly women with an average age of 82. He tested their hearing and their voices and asked them questions about their mood - in particular, depression.

About a third of the people had some hearing loss; about one in five had problems with their voices, and about one in 10 had problems with both hearing and speaking.

"If you look at patients who had hearing loss, they were more likely to have voice problems than respondents who did not have hearing loss," Cohen says. "And patients who had both hearing loss and voice problems were more likely to have higher depression scores than respondents who had neither… "

Cohen says it's hard to prove that becoming deaf makes people hoarse - because they're shouting - but he says there was a strong association between the two.

It is even harder to prove that a person's voice became hoarse when their spouse lost their hearing, like so many patients had said. But Cohen did find that once a person begins to suffer hearing loss, their spouse is more likely to end up depressed.

"So, this certainly raises the issue that's the elderly patients… one in 10… have a double whammy when it comes to communication," Cohen says.

Cohen maintains it's important that doctors ask older patients about these problems, because it's possible to help seniors work through some of the sensory deficits associated with age and improve their quality of life.

Cohen recently presented his research at the annual meeting of the American Laryngological, Rhinological and Otological Society.