Listen up – your ear health is important

Do you annoy your family by turning the TV up loud? Regularly miss the sound of your phone? You may be one of the many Australians suffering hearing loss.

Some 20 per cent of adults in Australia suffer from some sort of hearing loss.

For those 65 or older, that number rises to one in two.

Some of the most common causes include genetic predisposition, exposure to excessive noise levels, the ageing process and congenital infections.

The dangers of hearing loss

Those with hearing loss are far more likely to be involved in an accidental injury, according to new research.

A study from the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital says people who reported poor hearing are almost twice as likely to have some type of accidental injury related to driving, work, leisure or sport.

Senior study author Dr Neil Bhattacharyya says people with hearing loss are less likely to hear the warning signs of, for example, a bicycle or motorcycle coming towards them.

“They may be less likely to hear a car horn or someone yelling at them to ‘duck’ if a baseball is headed their direction,” he notes.

“Hearing is one of our most important senses and acts as an important warning system,” agrees ear, nose and throat specialist Dr Peter Friedland, Professor of Otolaryngology at The University of Western Australia.

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Hearing loss linked to depression

Dr Friedland says work by UWA and the Ear Science Institute Australia has shown strong evidence that hearing loss is linked to cognitive loss and also social isolation and depression.

“There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with not being able to hear properly, with continually having to ask people to repeat themselves,” he says.

“People get tired of asking others to repeat themselves and so won’t go to parties or restaurants because they can’t hear properly what friends or colleagues are saying. Slowly and surely they withdraw from society.”

Why it’s important to test for hearing loss

The hearing specialist says while people tend to quickly seek professional help if their eyesight fails, they tend to ignore hearing problems.

“In Australia the average man diagnosed with hearing loss will take between seven and 10 years to act on it,” he says.

“Hearing loss is invisible and so he gets away with it. It’s the same for women. They will smile and nod and pretend they’re hearing and not many people pick it up, at least for a while.

But Dr Friedland says we should not ignore hearing loss and advises people to have regular hearing checks and use hearing aids if needed.

Signs of hearing loss

Some of the things to look out for include:

  • Trouble hearing in noisy places
  • Difficulty understanding what people say or following conversations
  • Constant ringing or buzzing in your ears
  • Sounds are muffled and people are mumbling
  • Loud noises cause you discomfort

“We all think we’re bullet proof,” says Dr Friedland.

“But this is the age of what we describe as the ‘hearables generation’ and so wearing hearing aids should not be a problem at all and can make a world of difference.”

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How to help prevent hearing loss

University of Melbourne audiology lecturer Dr Caitlin Barr says research suggests about 40 per cent of hearing loss is preventable.

Preventative measures include making sure your headphones aren’t turned up so loud that music can be heard leaking out when worn; and giving your ears a break.

So if you go to a concert then spend the rest of the weekend taking it easy, and if you work in a venue where you’re exposed to loud sounds for prolonged periods ensure you wear hearing protection.

“Be mindful of your hearing dose across your whole lifespan and get your hearing checked as part of your annual health check-up,” she says.

“Our hearing is a precious sense. It connects us to people and emotions, but use it in a way that ensures you can enjoy hearing for your whole life.”

Written by Liz McGrath and Erin Miller.