As we age, the years take a toll on many aspects of our lives, and issues with our ears, nose, and throat are among those we notice the most. After all, our senses and ability to communicate are strong determiners of quality of life, or lack thereof.
Decades of use or abuse can greatly affect the functions we rely upon daily. Overuse of the voice, years of exposure to loud noise—be it rock music, lawn equipment, or factory noise, repeated infections, use of alcohol or recreational drugs, smoking, and even prescription medications are some of the culprits.
Dr. David Boisoneau, one of the physicians at Ear, Nose, & Throat Associates of Southeastern Connecticut, shared some insights into the issues that face older folks.
What is the most common problem you treat with older individuals?
“Hearing loss. Many older people have degeneration of their ability to hear and, sometimes, along with that comes ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus. The problem can also be something as simple as ear wax plugging the canal.” Being unable to hear clearly affects a person’s understanding of speech.
Another common problem is nosebleeds, according to Dr. Boisoneau. Individuals who take blood-thinning medications, or suffer from allergies, can often experience severe nosebleeds. A chronic runny or drippy nose and/or sneezing is known as vasomotor rhinitis and can be caused by certain foods, changes in the weather, certain odors, or some medications.
Another decline that comes with age is the sense of smell, which also affects the sense of taste. When food no longer tastes good, this can cause older people to not eat as much as they want to maintain a healthy weight.
Can chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, or dementia cause additional problems?
“Yes,” says Dr. Boisoneau. “Diabetes can affect small blood vessels and that can cause issues with further hearing loss. Another side effect can be dizziness and imbalance, which is a common problem in the elderly.”
He adds, “Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease can result in several mouth and throat problems, including speaking, swallowing, talking, chewing, and choking.” Hoarseness can be caused by stiffening of the larynx tissue, also affecting the pitch of the voice.
What things can older folks do to avoid ear, nose, or throat problems?
“Try to be healthy overall. Be aware of the amount of noise you are exposed to. Avoid using cotton swabs to clean the ears; this practice pushes the wax into the canal. Decent vocal hygiene will maintain a stronger voice as you age.” The term “vocal hygiene” describes habits that will help maintain a strong voice as you age. This includes good hydration, not clearing the throat, diet and lifestyle that prevents acid reflux, speaking at a lower volume and not excessively, avoiding medications which dry the throat (antihistamines/decongestants), and avoiding dusty or smoky environments.
And stop smoking. “Most ear, nose, or throat cancers tend to present in older people who’ve spent years smoking or abusing alcohol,” says Dr. Boisoneau. He also points out that the younger generations use ear-buds directly into the ear, and this chronic noise abuse will cause problems later on. Younger individuals should make an effort to minimize noise.
Most importantly, if you are having problems, don’t ignore them. Talk to a specialist who will know how to help you.
Ear, Nose & Throat Associates of Southeastern Connecticut is located at 201 Boston Post Road, Waterford (860-442-0407); and 14 Masons Island Road, #2, Mystic (860-536-3078). For more information visit www.entofsect.com.