We live in a noisy world and it seems to be getting worse every year. Unless you protect your ears, sooner than later it may be you having a difficult time hearing. Approximately one-third of people over age 65 are affected by disabling hearing loss. It can be sudden or gradual depending on the cause of the loss.
Hearing loss can be mild, moderate, severe or profound. It can affect one or both of the ears and can lead to difficulty in hearing conversational speech and sounds. Men are more likely to experience hearing loss than women and half of all cases are preventable.
We are born with a fixed number of hair cells; once they die, they cannot be replaced. Usually, sensitivity to high-frequency sounds is the first to go and followed by an inability to hear the frequencies of speech.
‘Hard of hearing’ refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe. They can often communicate through spoken language but can benefit from hearing aids, captioning and assistive listening devices.
‘Deaf’ people mostly have profound hearing loss. People in this classification often uses sign language and is generally reserved for very little or no hearing at all.
Hearing loss can be present or acquired soon after birth from a variety of reasons such as a lack of oxygen at the time of birth, low birth weight and severe jaundice. Children can also acquire hearing loss if the mother has rubella, syphilis or infections during pregnancy. Infectious diseases such as meningitis, measles and mumps can lead to hearing loss, mostly in childhood, but also later in life.
Chronic ear infections are the leading cause of hearing loss in children. In certain cases this condition can also lead to serious, life-threatening complications, such as brain abscesses or meningitis.
Acquired hearing loss is often associated with excessive noise and repeat exposure to portable music devices, hair dryers, sirens, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, car alarms and countless other sources. Ear protection is a must for people who shoot guns as well as those who ride motorcycles or use any type of machinery or power tools.
Even toys meant for young children can generate ear-damaging levels of noise. Some toy sirens and squeaky rubber toys have been reported to emit sounds as loud as a lawn mower. Potential hazards include cap guns, talking dolls, vehicles with horns and sirens and musical instruments.
But even noisier than many of these is the maximum output of some portable music players. A national study found that among users of portable music devices, 35 per cent of adults and up to 59 per cent of teenagers reported listening at loud volumes.
They often exceed occupational safety levels and produce sound levels in the ear on a par with that of a jet taking off. If you listen to music with ear buds or headphones at levels that block out normal discourse, you are in effect dealing lethal blows to the hair cells in your ears, explains Dr Michael D. Seidman, director of otolaryngology at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
Impacts of hearing loss
The most profound impact of hearing loss in children is the delay of spoken language. It is known to impact one’s interpersonal communication and the development of other social skills. Hearing loss and conditions such as chronic ear infections also have significant adverse effects on academic performance.
Limited access to certain services and exclusion from communication with others can have a significant impact on one’s every day life such as being lonely, isolated and feelings of depression. In many countries, many children with hearing loss or deafness rarely receive any schooling and are often discriminated against.
Adults with hearing loss have a much higher unemployment rates, job turnover and also experience discrimination. Of the employed, a higher percentage of people with hearing loss are in the lower grades of employment compared with the general workforce.
Types of hearing loss
One form of hearing loss is presbycusis and can come on gradually as a person ages. Presbycusis most commonly affects people over 50 and continual deterioration occurs slowly over time. People with this type of hearing loss may find it hard to have a conversation with friends and family. It’s also common for individuals to have difficulty understanding a doctor’s advice, responding to warnings, and hearing doorbells and alarms.
Presbycusis occurs due to physical changes within the inner, middle or outer ear. These structures can be damaged by a variety of causes including infection, injury, loud noise and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure.
In age-related hearing loss, the ageing population can put themselves in harms way. Hearing loss can impact one’s ability to drive a vehicle safely and they often experience more everyday accidents, falls and injuries. Hearing loss can be sometimes confused with dementia. People who are hearing impaired often appear to be confused, unresponsive and uncooperative as they don’t hear what one is saying.
A ringing or buzzing in the ears characterizes tinnitus, another common symptom in older people. It often comes and goes and can be heard in one or both ears. Tinnitus can also be due to the use of ototoxic medications. These include medicines that are used to treat serious infections, heart disease and cancer. Misuse of anti-malarial drugs can also lead to tinnitus and irreversible hearing loss.
The antibiotics that cause the most tinnitus include polymyxin B, erythromycin, vancomycin and neomycin. Water pills or diuretics, aspirin, malaria medications and the use of antidepressants may make the symptoms worse as well.
Generally, the higher the dose of these medications, the worse tinnitus becomes. Often the unwanted noise disappears when you stop using these drugs.
It’s common for people to not want to admit they have hearing problems. Ageing people who can’t hear can become depressed and withdraw from others to avoid feeling frustrated or embarrassed. Hearing is a luxury that a lot of us take for granted, it’s important to take preventative steps before you lose your hearing.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.