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Caring for your hearing and your health

There are many misconceptions about hearing loss, but one of the most common is that it only affects your ears, and so it doesn’t always need to be taken seriously. But the truth is that caring for your hearing is an important part of looking after your wider health and guaranteeing your quality of life.

Don’t ignore the warning signs

At present, around 1 in 6 Australians experience some degree of hearing loss, and for people over 70, that number jumps to 3 in 41. In spite of the high prevalence of hearing loss, people often wait up to seven years between realising they have an issue and seeking help. Part of the reason is that hearing loss is often gradual and many people aren’t aware until it’s quite advanced.

Trevor Simon of South Australia, found out firsthand the negative effects of waiting to seek help. Having worked as a landscape gardener for most of his adult life, he’s spent years around loud machinery without ear protection – which eventually led to him developing hearing loss and tinnitus.

“I had to concentrate so hard to hear what other people were saying at work – and I’d have to ask them to repeat themselves all the time. When I’d get home at night I’d be exhausted,” says Trevor.

Signs you may have a problem with your hearing:

  • Other people’s speech sounds muffled, or you may have difficulty hearing women or young children
  • Realising you are more frequently asking others to repeat themselves or to speak louder
  • Needing to turn up the TV or radio in order to be able to hear
  • Being unable to hear common noises, such as doorbells
  • Sensitivities to certain sounds
  • Regularly being told that you are speaking above normal volume
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears

Sometimes the solution is quite simple; for instance, a build-up of excess wax can cause a number of the symptoms above. A GP should be consulted if you experience a sudden loss of hearing, as it could be attributed to things such as infection, nerve-related issues or trauma to the ear.

The rehabilitation process

If you discover that you have hearing loss after being checked out, it’s recommended you work closely with a hearing care professional to pursue the best course of action.

Hearing loss is nothing to be embarrassed about, but for many it is a sensitive issue – people don’t like to feel “old”, and if the hearing loss has occurred through misadventure, there can often be an element of guilt associated too.

This is where an audiologist’s skills step in. Audiologists are sometimes perceived as simply delivering hearing tests and prescribing hearing aids. But this paints a very limited picture of the services that they actually provide. Audiologists frequently provide counselling, speech rehabilitation and teaching lip-reading. These skills are particularly important when the client is experiencing a hearing issue like tinnitus, as hearing aids are not always required.

The associated risks of untreated hearing loss

Hearing loss isn’t just about your ears; affected people often have a difficult time in crowds or public places, so they withdraw in order to avoid undue stress.

“I found it hard to hear my children speaking to my wife, and it annoyed me because I thought they were talking secrets about me,” says Trevor. “Obviously they weren’t, but I started getting a guilty conscience after a couple of years, thinking ‘why don’t they want me to hear?’ It wasn’t that at all.”

So far, the evidence indicates that if the hearing and speech centre of the brain’s not receiving adequate stimulation, and may cause gradual decline in brain function2. Additionally, ongoing research has proposed that the strain of decoding sounds can overwhelm the brains of people affected by hearing loss, leaving them more vulnerable to developing cognitive disorders3 , however there is need for further research to be done in this space to confirm a link.

A hearing check-up can help establish a baseline for the quality of your hearing, and any deterioration can be much more easily detected and treated. In this way, your quality of life can be maintained, or even improved. Trevor will attest to that:

“If you think you’ve got a hearing loss, go straight away and get it checked. Since I did, I’ve got my life back.”

1 Access Economics, 2006, Listen Hear!: The Economic Impact and Cost of Hearing Loss in Australia, p.5
2 http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/hearing_loss_linked_to_accelerated_brain_tissue_loss_
3 http://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/Fulltext/2011/04000/Hj_Report.2

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