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Hearing loss is often associated with advancing age, but this is not always the case. Although it can strike people at any age, the condition most often appears after the age of 65. But it can also be caused by infections, injury or birth defects.
Age-related hearing loss
As we get older we may lose our ability to hear softer, high-pitched sounds. Birdsong is fairly easy to live without, but getting by when you lose some of the building blocks of speech is a far more challenging affair.
Noise-induced hearing loss
This is often caused by overexposure to excessive noise. It threatens the hearing of military personnel, police officers, construction workers, factory workers, farmers, dentists and kindergarten teachers – to name but a few. Rock concerts and MP3 players can also damage people’s hearing.
What causes hearing loss
Regular exposure to loud noise will accelerate hearing loss. Even transient loud noise, such as the sound of a hammer, can cause permanent damage to your hearing. Always wear ear protectors if you are exposed to excessive noise.
In general, there are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural or mixed hearing loss (a combination of both).
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in the outer and middle ear, which can prevent sounds getting through to the inner ear. The most common cause can be a build-up of wax in the ear canal, perforated eardrums, fluid in the middle ear, or damaged or defective ossicles (middle ear bones).
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss happens when the delicate sensory cells or nerve fibres in the inner ear get damaged. This stops them transmitting sound properly. The most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss are the natural process of ageing or excessive exposure to noise. This condition is in most cases permanent.
Even with a hearing loss you might feel that life sounds just as loud as ever. Some sounds – like a lawnmower – remain audible while others become harder to hear. Take the voices of women and children, for instance. You will have to work doubly hard to follow what they are saying, as their voices are softer and higher pitched than men’s voices. Our hearing gets weaker over the years, it basically starts to decrease before you become a teenager. It is a very slow process, therefore it is difficult to recognise.
Knowing more about what to be aware of will help you monitor your own reactions: If you find yourself saying “What?” and “Sorry – could you repeat that?” you will know that it is time to take action and get your hearing tested.
Is this you? Do you have difficulty hearing someone calling from behind or from another room? And do you try to avoid talking on the phone?
Sounds can be described as loud or soft, high-pitched or lowpitched. A violin, or birds singing are examples of high-pitched (or high frequency) sounds, while a double bass, or traffic in the street are examples of low-pitched (or low frequency) sounds.
Keeping up with speech
What makes speech so hard to follow with a hearing loss is that it involves so many different sounds in a rapid flow. The softer, highpitched consonants such as ‘f’, ‘s’ or ‘t’ can be drowned out by the louder, low-pitched vowel sounds – such as ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’. So if someone says “statue” and all you can hear is “s_a_ue”, you will be forced to try and guess the rest – by which time the conversation will have moved on. At meetings and social events there is nothing worse than having to ask people to repeat themselves. You might blame others for mumbling, when it is actually your hearing that is at fault. Communication will become increasingly difficult, until eventually you will withdraw from social situations completely.
Did you know that sounds such as birdsong, footsteps, and leaves rustling in the wind are some of the first to fade away unnoticed? If you are missing these everyday sounds, you may also be missing key speech sounds, which makes words sound muffled and blurred.
If you were to pause for a moment to consider how good you are at listening and communicating in different situations, how would you rate your abilities? If you sometimes find it hard to keep up, and you often feel tired and overwhelmed, it is important to consider the cause. Do family or friends complain that you are not listening? You might be in great shape physically – but what kind of condition is your hearing in? This section provides insight into how your hearing works and how to spot the telltale signs of hearing loss. This information will help you make the right decisions when it comes to looking after your hearing. A hearing loss does not have to prevent you from enjoying life, and it will not – as long as you do something about it now!
Of all the five senses, our hearing is perhaps the most precious. Deprived of this, we lose contact with the people we love and the world in general. Consider all the sounds you encounter, every single day: friends chatting, children laughing, a favourite song, a loving remark. It is this invigorating, informative symphony of sounds that makes life richer. As well as helping us communicate and socialise, our sense of hearing helps to keep us safe. We rely on our hearing in so many ways, which is why we should treasure and protect it.
Don’t be the last to know. Hearing loss can creep up so slowly that the person affected is often the last one to know. In fact, friends, co-workers or family members are likely to spot the problem before you do. They might say, “You are not listening to me.” They may get annoyed because the TV is too loud. And they might wonder why you do not react when a friend calls you or when the doorbell rings. The real problem is often not the condition itself – but that we do not recognise it and do something about it early on. To avoid this fate, you need to be able to recognise the signs and get your hearing checked. People get their eyes and teeth checked on a regular basis, so why not add your ears to the maintenance list? It takes less than an hour to assess your hearing health – and the sooner a hearing loss is detected, the better.
Did you know that more than 500 million people worldwide experience some degree of hearing loss? About half are of working age.