hearing test

Hearing loss affects people of all ages. Image: Adobe Stock

Hearing loss: Why you should never leave it untreated

World Hearing Day on Wednesday 3 March is a chance to find out how we can protect our hearing, as well as prevent and treat hearing loss.

hearing test

Hearing loss affects people of all ages. Image: Adobe Stock

The ability to hear and communicate well plays a critical role in our wellbeing as naturally sociable creatures, which is why hearing loss should never be ignored.

However, many of us take our hearing for granted. This includes not taking enough preventative or corrective measures to protect and preserve our ability to hear.

The wider implications of hearing loss

“Hearing loss can have greater implications than you realise if left untreated,” said Barry Kaganson, CEO of Auria Senior Living, which develops and manages senior living communities in South Africa.

“Research actually shows that people with impaired hearing can have higher rates of depression, social isolation and cognitive decline, and they can be more prone to trips and falls.”

“What most people don’t realise is that hearing loss is not something that can be reversed,” said Reetal Jani, an audiologist at Kind2Hearing.

Kind2Hearing visits San Sereno, Auria’s senior living community in Bryanston, every month to help residents with hearing-related issues. 

Hearing issues can affect all ages

“Our ability to hear, communicate and participate in conversation is important at all stages of life. The inability to do this can be particularly isolating for older people who don’t always have as much social contact as youngsters, and who want and need to socialise and be part of a community in their senior years,” Jani said.

Hearing loss doesn’t just occur in older people but can begin quite young in life. The environments we are in and the activities we undertake play a large role in affecting the quality of our hearing over a lifetime.

Hearing loss often not detected for years

Hearing loss doesn’t just occur in older people but can begin quite young in life. Image: Adobe Stock

It may seem obvious at first that diminished hearing should be easy to identify, but this is not the case.

“Research has shown that the majority of people who go to an audiologist with hearing difficulties have been living with some degree of hearing loss for up to 10 years,” Jani said.

What are the symptoms of hearing loss?

“The human ear hears in low, mid- and high-frequency ranges. As we get older or begin to lose hearing, we struggle with high-frequency sounds such as women’s or children’s voices,” Jani said.

The inability to clearly hear the ‘s’ or ‘th’ sounds is common. So is struggling to hear clearly in environments where there is a lot of ambient noise. Other early signs to watch out for are tinnitus (ringing in the ears), the need to turn up the volume on the TV or radio to hear more clearly, or the growing need to have subtitles on the TV in order to understand what is happening.

The tendency to isolate oneself or to move away from group settings is often a giveaway.

“Mostly, it is when the people around a person start to notice their inability to hear that hearing loss starts to be identified,” Jani said. 

When should you get your hearing checked?

A certain amount of hearing loss is likely to occur as one ages, and age is still the strongest predictor of hearing loss in adults. Among adults aged 65 to 74, 25% have a disabling hearing loss, and 50% of adults over 75 have a disabling hearing loss.

However, hearing loss can begin at any age. Youngsters who regularly play music at a loud volume or attend loud events like rock concerts are at risk. So is anyone whose hobbies or activities include the use of loud equipment or machinery.

“Men tend to experience hearing loss younger than women. They often start losing hearing around age 40 to 50, whereas for women it tends to occur more often over the age of 60 and often as late as 80,” Jani said.

Not all cases require a hearing aid

Hearing loss is not always severe enough to require a hearing aid. Image: Adobe Stock

Just as one is advised to visit the dentist or get one’s eyes checked regularly, audiologists recommend that anyone with normal hearing should have a hearing test once every year to 18 months. This allows any hearing loss to be identified early.

Not all cases of hearing loss are severe enough that a person requires a hearing aid, but with regular tests, an audiologist can pick up problems, recommend ways to deal with them and recommend a hearing aid if necessary.

Why you should not ignore hearing loss

Untreated hearing impairment can have many negative knock-on effects and the sooner any of these can be prevented, the better.

“What we don’t realise is that although the ear does the mechanical work involved in hearing, most of the work is done by the brain – that is where the real listening and interpreting takes place.

“The purpose of a hearing aid is not just to normalise hearing, but to provide the brain with the continuous stimulation that it needs,” Jani said. This has significant implications for cognitive health.

Research carried out by experts at the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, bears this out. In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, experts found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.

How to prevent hearing loss

The best way to prevent hearing loss is to start early. Use proper hearing protection and don’t put yourself in situations where there are loud noises on a frequent basis, Jani says.

Professionally designed hearing protection is available from any audiologist, and is advisable over the small ear plugs or other items on retail shelves.

How friends and family can help

Friends and family can help those who are struggling with their hearing in various ways.

“When speaking to someone with impaired hearing, speak at a normal volume but speak very clearly – articulate your words carefully and speak a little more slowly,” Jani said.

Get the person’s attention before you speak to them, and make sure they can see you so that they can read your lips and body language as well. If you suspect hearing loss, the first thing to do is to get your hearing tested to get a clear picture of the situation and the correct advice.

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