According to a leading published *study, more than 10 million individuals in the UK are thought to have some form of hearing disability. Of which, 800,000 are profoundly deaf. Hearing loss can be caused by a number of reasons, from lifestyle choices due to exposure to excessive noise to temporary causes due to certain medications. The biggest cause is far less sinister and linked to the natural process of aging. Known as age related hearing loss, it affects individuals from the age of 40, but is most conspicuous in the over 65s. In fact, 70% of over 65 year-olds and 40% of over 50 year-olds have some form of hearing impairment. .
To capture and eventually process sound, the inner ear contains thousands of tiny hair like structures. These tiny structures capture vibrations and waves in the air that we simply categorize as ‘sound’. From there, the information flows to the brain where it is made into detail we can actually recognise. As the body matures, the number of hair cells and their quality is significantly reduced leading to a gradual difficulty in hearing certain sounds. The body is unable to form new inner ear hair cells, which is why age related hearing loss is not treatable but rather managed. Scientists are actively working on research that will make the body regrow the inner ear hair cells, however research is in its very preliminary stages.
Hearing loss that is left unmanaged may have damaging long-term affects on an individual’s health, especially in terms of cognitive decline. Perhaps most disturbing is the possible link between hearing loss and dementia. Recent research suggests that there is a strong connection between hearing loss and dementia. Not only are the hard of hearing at a high risk of experiencing social isolation due to reduced communication with their immediate surroundings they are also more likely to develop dementia. Further complications of undamaged hearing loss are linked to mental health issues such as depression. An individual with unmanaged hearing loss must concentrate harder to hear and often has to use lip reading and facial gesture expressions to fill in the gap as to what was said. After a while, this over concentration leads to fatigue and symptoms that mimic physical exhaustion. Some individuals will then choose to simply avoid conversation, as it is too exhausting, thereby opening the door to social exclusion.
Symptoms of age related hearing loss will vary in their severity between individuals. Not only does the number and decline in hair cells quality vary between individuals, but also other factors from family history to smoking contribute to hearing loss. The most common symptoms are:
- Difficulty hearing in a noisy room
- Feeling that other people are mumbling
- Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
- Certain sounds seeming overly loud
- Problems telling apart certain sounds such as “s” or “th”
- More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices
- Tinnitus also known as ringing in the ears, is a possible sign
To manage and reduce the effect of diminished hearing, the medical community offers a number of devices that are used to artificially amplify sound. The most recognizable are hearing aids mostly the digital type. These are a group of tiny devices that aid the workings of the inner ear hair cells by digitally amplifying sounds. However, solutions do not stop there. A significant number of vendors offer specific solutions to cope with life’s daily challenges, amongst which the fastest growing group includes amplified desk and cell phones. These devices feature loud caller voice and especially loud ringers often 10 times that of a normal phone. Other solutions work in the same manner and comprise of loud alarms, aids for watching TV or hearing music and often to manage the hearing impairment, a number of devices are used individually each at the right time. There is absolutely no need to tolerate hearing loss of the age related type, as condition individuals are hopeless to resolve.
A hearing exam and verbal consultation at your family doctor is the first step. Thereafter, a hearing test will diagnose if hearing loss is present its extent. Solutions will depend on the severity of the hearing loss categorised by mild, moderate and profound hearing loss.
Information written by Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for UK based www.hearingdirect.com. In addition to her role as the company audiologist, Joan helps maintain an information blog on hearing loss.
* Study: action on hearing loss (a charitable organisation championing support for people with hearing loss and tinnitus).