In assisted living, a simple culprit for hearing issues and vertigo: Earwax

Janie York examines Elaine Martin's ear at the SilverRidge Assisted Living facility in Gretna, Nebraska.

Story highlights

  • In 30% of elderly and developmentally disabled people, wax collects to the point where it can block the ear canal
  • Up to two-thirds of people in nursing homes may have that condition

Of all the indignities that come with aging, excessive earwax may be the most insidious.

Don't laugh.
    That greasy, often gross, buildup occurs more often in older ears than those of the young, experts say. And when it goes unrecognized, it can pose serious problems, especially for the 2.2 million people who live in U.S. nursing homes and assisted living centers.
    "The excessive amount [of earwax] can cause hearing loss or ringing in your ears. Some people experience vertigo, which increases the risk of falling," said Jackie Clark, a board-certified audiologist who is president of the American Academy of Audiology. "Right now, we see some correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline."
    Earwax -- which is not really wax at all, but a substance called cerumen that binds with dirt, dust and debris -- is normally produced by the body as a way to clean and protect the ears. In most people, the self-cleaning process works fine.