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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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