According to a recent survey*, more than half of UK adults worry that they’re losing their hearing. If you’re one of them, here’s what you need to know
Being able to hear may not be something many of us give much thought to but, as we age, it’s one of our most important senses that often starts to deteriorate. In fact, 5.3 million people aged over 65 in England suffer from hearing loss, which is said to have ‘a disproportionate effect on their wider physical and mental health’ according to NHS England (england.nhs.uk). And, approximately from the age of 50, the tiny hair cells in the inner ear (the cochlea) start to deteriorate from use. Whether you’ve been thinking about it or not, there’s much you can do to help prevent and spot the symptoms.
“Hearing loss may not be as obvious as you think and can develop gradually over a long period of time. Sometimes people don’t actually realise that their hearing is diminishing,” explains Duncan Collet-Fenson from Aston Hearing (astonhearing.co.uk). “Examples of the first signs of hearing loss include difficulty hearing people over the phone or on TV, or asking people to repeat themselves, especially in noisy areas. Speech may sound muffled. You may also have other symptoms, such as earache, tinnitus or vertigo, which is a spinning sensation. The most common reason for hearing loss is caused by damage to the cochlea, so minimise your exposure to extreme noise, such as at loud music events.”
However, it’s fair to say that loud noises are everywhere. Whether you wince at the sound of a police siren buzzing past you, or cover your ears as you walk by a construction sight, it’s hard to avoid sound. But, it’s how noise is measured (in decibels) that matters. “Sounds below 75 decibels – even if for long periods – do not usually trigger hearing loss,” says Dr Roger Henderson, Earex expert (earex.co.uk). “However, repeated or continuous exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss; the louder the sound, the shorter the time it takes for this to occur.”
“Your first step should be to visit an audiologist,” recommends Specsavers’ chief audiologist Gordon Harrison (specsavers.co.uk). “For those over 55, we recommend having your hearing tested every two years, regardless of whether or not you think you are losing your hearing. This is because, while hearing loss is sometimes sudden, more often than not it happens gradually and you may not notice it at first.” There are also times when hearing protection should be used, too. Gordon adds: “I would recommend you consider hearing protection in situations where you think your hearing may be affected – there are a range of hearing plugs available for music concerts and noisy DIY jobs, for example. The general rule is, the higher the volume, the less time you should be exposed to it.”
“Amazingly, your ears biologically self-clean, and ear wax helps to maintain the health of your ears,” explains Gordon. “But problems can arise when items such as cotton buds are inserted into the ear. This interferes with the ear’s natural cleaning process and pushes wax and debris further into the ear, which can cause build-up or a blockage of the ear canal.”
There are dozens of headphones on the market but, in the interest of protecting your hearing, it might be worth investing in a pair that has noisecancelling technology. “To help avoid damaging your hearing when listening to music, use noisecancelling headphones rather than traditional ones where you might just turn the volume up to cover up outside noise,” explains Dr Roger. Also because they cancel out loud external noise, you’re more likely to listen to your music at a lower volume, resulting in less overall damage to your ears. “Don’t listen to music at more than 60 percent of the maximum volume and try not to use headphones for more than an hour at a time,” he adds. “Take a break for at least five to 10 minutes every hour.”
Ototoxic drugs such as some antibiotics, high doses of aspirin or ibuprofen, diuretics or cancer medications can interfere with hearing by impairing the inner ear. Symptoms include ringing in the ears or experiencing vertigo after starting the medication. To avoid this, contact your doctor immediately so that alternative medication can be prescribed.
Stats show that smokers are nearly 70 percent more likely than non-smokers to suffer from hearing loss. The link between lighting up and hearing loss is due to blood pressure being raised, causing the blood vessels in the ears to get constricted. Nicotine also interferes with neurotransmitters in the auditory nerve, which tell your brain which sound you’re hearing.
Don’t panic, as there are still plenty of things you can do to ease living with impaired hearing. “At first it can be difficult to deal with hearing loss but the hearing aid technology that is available today is extraordinary and there are other treatments that can also be considered such as a hearing therapy, implants and lip-reading classes,” reassures Duncan. “It’s important though to understand that hearing aids are not the same as getting new glasses. Whilst hearing aids do make a significant difference, the brain needs to adjust to the quality of sound coming from the hearing aid so it’s still difficult to restore full hearing with hearing aids. With technology ever advancing, you can buy hearing aids which are hardly noticeable and that perform an incredible number of functions such as being connected to your phone to allow you to receive phone calls through your hearing aids.”