FAIRFIELD — As a person gets older, they’re more likely to need hearing help.
For veterans who have been involved in what is often a very noisy career, that percentage is even higher than the regular population. The No. 1 disability veterans have is hearing loss, according to Solano County Veteran Services Officer Ted Puntillo.
“Before 1975, there was no hearing protection provided,” Puntillo said of many military job specialities that involved working around loud machinery, aircraft or weapons. “The services are more conscious about it now, but it still happens.”
A recent Veterans Affairs report estimated that more than 59,000 military members are on disability for hearing loss suffered while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2011, tinnitus and hearing loss incidents exceeded post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It is one of the health issues affecting veterans. Fifteen percent of veterans’ visits are related to hearing problems and/or tinnitus,” said Dr. Jane Trauba Sliheet Au.D, chief of the audiology section for the VA Northern California Health Care System.
People start experiencing deterioration of their higher-frequency hearing between 55 and 60. Combine that with noise issues and noise trauma associated with military service, and the hearing loss is greater, Sliheet said.
Sliheet also pointed out it is not just an issue affecting older veterans, because the VA is treating a large number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are coming home with high-frequency hearing loss. The most prevalent service-connected disabilities for veterans receiving compensation in 2011 was tinnitus and hearing loss.
And with the large population bubble of Vietnam-era veterans reaching their older years, the need for access to hearing aids is increasing.
“Sixty percent of the veterans are Vietnam vets,” Puntillo said.
Everywhere Puntillo goes to talk to veterans and their families about health care services, the information about hearing aids “sparks the most interest.”
In 2009, a VA directive stated that hearing loss does not have to be service-connected for it to be treated, Sliheet said. Getting the word out on that change is helping bring in more veterans to get their hearing checked and get problems treated.
There are several ways that veterans can get hearing aids for free, according to Puntillo.
One is enrolling in the VA’s health care system. If your hearing loss is determined to be enough to alter how you live, you can get them for free. That includes getting batteries every six months and having the hearing aids fixed.
“It is a wonderful thing. Most health insurance doesn’t cover that,” Puntillo said.
The second is if the veteran has a service-connected injury that makes him or her more than 10 percent disabled.
The nearest VA audiology clinic to the Fairfield-Suisun area is located at Mare Island, with more hearing treatment services offered at the Martinez VA facility.
That includes diagnostic/audiologic services, hearing aid fitting, balance testing and audial rehabilitation classes for both veterans and their families to discuss among peers how hearing problems are affecting their lives, work out any problems with hearing aids and get training on how to maintain hearing aids.
“These classes give the veteran and his family a chance to ask more questions,” Sliheet said.
Getting hearing problems addressed will help improve the quality of life for veterans, Sliheet said, pointing out that hearing problems can cause a breakdown in family communication and make it tougher for the veteran to get assistance for other needs.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.