In Health Issues on Wednesday 6th Feb, 2019

What’s normal and what’s not when it comes to your hearing

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Remember putting a seashell to you ear as a child? The sound we all thought was the ocean was actually ambient sound being bounced around inside the shell! Source: Getty

Ever wondered how your partner fails to hear your repeated requests to take the bins out? Or how your grandkids can detect the sound of a chip packet rustling from the other side of the house?

Jokes about selective hearing aside, ears are an amazing part of our anatomy. But do you know whether yours are functioning normally or not?

There can be a fine line between normal functioning and having hearing trouble, so we talked to hearing experts to learn more about these small (or perhaps not so small!) organs, and the common signs your hearing isn’t as sharp as it once was.

Why ‘hairy’ ears are great to have

Just because you don’t have to take the hair trimmer to your ears doesn’t mean they’re not ‘hairy’. Everyone has tiny, hair-like cells (roughly 20,000 of them per ear) lining the walls of the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure inside the inner ear. The movement of these hairs, caused by the vibrations of sound, is passed to the brain for interpretation and, ultimately, this is how we hear sound.

The hairs in your ear also play an essential role in your balancing ability. That’s because the inner ear has three canals containing hair cells and fluid. This fluid shifts as you move, which stimulates the hair cells in these canals and sends your brain signals about what you must do to balance yourself.

What can hurt your delicate hair cells

It only takes seven and a half minutes standing near a loudspeaker at a concert to damage the hair cells in your ears. Even a single blast of very loud noise can hurt those hair cells. This kind of damage leads to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is irreversible because damaged hair cells don’t grow back.

Surprisingly, this kind of hearing damage can alter the way you taste food! Nerves (called the chorda tympani) that connect the most sensitive part of your tongue to your brain run via your ears, so a change in inner-ear anatomy can result in a change of taste.

Age-related hearing loss is common, as the hair cells gradually lose their ability to function. Almost 60 per cent of Aussies aged 61-70 have some form of hearing loss, and that rises to 74 per cent for people aged 71-plus.

How to know if your hearing isn’t tip-top

According to the national organisation HearSmart, hearing loss is the second most common health condition experienced by Australians, ahead of asthma, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

The breakdown of the hearing system usually happens so gradually, though, that it’s highly unlikely you’ll notice any change in your own hearing at first.

“A hearing problem is usually first noticed as a loss of clarity rather than volume,” says Dr Elaine Saunders, an award-winning audiological scientist and co-founder of Blamey Saunders Hears. “Your first clue might be mixing up consonants; you’ll hear ‘tear’ instead of ‘beer’.”

These seemingly small mix-ups can have surprising repercussions, as Dr Saunders personally learned when she attended Parliament House to give a lecture on hearing. Having told the security officer on duty that she had a laser pointer in her bag for the presentation, Dr Saunders found herself surrounded by armed police demanding to know why she carried such a ‘dangerous’ item. It turns out the security officer had misheard “laser” as “Taser”!

Other than confusion over consonants, Dr Saunders says the most common signs of hearing loss include:

  • Finding it hard to follow a conversation in a crowded room or restaurant. The ear and the brain work together to understand conversation in difficult places, but if your hearing has declined, you may notice it when you’re somewhere noisy and you’re trying to listen.
  • Feeling like people are always mumbling. If people you speak to seem, more often than not, to be mumbling, it can be a sign of hearing loss, which makes normal speech sound muffled.
  • Receiving frequent complaints about the volume. When people around you claim that your preferred TV or radio volume is uncomfortably loud, it’s worth paying attention because they could be picking up a gradual change in your hearing preferences that isn’t obvious to you.
  • Finding it easier to understand men’s voices.Finding deeper voices easier to detect means your hearing is likely deteriorating in the upper registers of sound. Speech is generated by the vibration of the vocal cords and the frequency at which they vibrate is known as the ‘fundamental frequency’. Men tend to speak with a fundamental voice frequency near the middle C note, or 256 hertz, and women speak with a fundamental frequency that’s about an octave higher and thus harder to hear for people with certain kinds of hearing loss.
  • Experiencing noises or ringing in your ears. Tinnitus is usually a sign of hearing damage, often caused by too much exposure to loud sound.

What to do if you think your hearing may have worsened

Untreated hearing loss can cause a broad range of issues, including poorer mental health and brain function, reduced employment capacity, and, of course, relationship difficulties. That’s why it’s important to identify the problem and find a solution sooner rather than later.

The good news is you can now take hearing tests in the comfort of your home, without a specialist appointment. Blamey Saunders Hears offers a free online test here, which you can take straight away to put to rest any concerns about your hearing.

Depending on your results, the solution to any hearing loss may be as simple as having built-up wax removed by a hearing care professional, or it may involve hearing aids.

Regardless of your results, though, Dr Saunders recommends the following tactics for reducing your risk of sustaining hearing damage or causing further hearing damage:

  • Take frequent breaks away from the source if you have to be around loud sound
  • Use hearing protection when you know you’re going to be around loud sound – you can get custom-made earplugs for concerts
  • Reduce the volume that comes through your headphones, the radio or TV
  • Treat any ear infections promptly because they can damage hearing.

Is your hearing as good as ever or have you noticed signs it’s less sharp than before? Have you taken a hearing test recently?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

Blamey Saunders Hears

This Australian hearing company is making premium quality hearing technology much more accessible. Their award-winning innovations reduce barriers keeping millions of Australians from achieving hearing health.

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