It’s time to overcome complacency on hearing health 12



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Australia-wide, more than 90,000 people aged 65 and over are estimated to be at risk of severe to profound hearing loss – but just a tiny percentage are getting treated. It’s an alarming figure, yet one that can be rectified.

People with severe to profound hearing loss can struggle to hear in crowded places, find it difficult to hear on the phone, it’s hard to keep up at work and talk with family and friends, and they may no longer be able to hear children’s voices clearly.

Regardless of age, the ability to hear clearly is essential to maintaining a good quality lifestyle and enjoyment and, vitally, health. People need to be aware of how important it is to maintain healthy hearing, so they can continue to interact with the things and people they love and reach their full potential.

The good news is that you don’t have to suffer in silence. Yes, hearing loss is debilitating and can lead to feelings of social isolation. But there are different solutions available, even if your hearing aids are no longer effective.


What are the signs?

There are numerous everyday signs that hearing loss may be causing problems. A Cochlear Newspoll survey of 1200 Australians aged 18+ found that of those who have a hearing impairment:

  • 67% find themselves always turning up the volume on the TV, with another 16% admitting they put the subtitles on when watching TV.
  • 44% believe they ‘miss out’ because of their hearing.
  • 36% avoid social situations that will be in a crowded room.
  • 15% say they avoid talking on the telephone.
  • 14% will sit near the speakers at public performances.

Hearing loss is often progressive and insidious, and brings with it numerous medical, emotional and social side effects. A hearing test can help health professionals plan the most effective hearing rehabilitation, and it can also indicate a more serious hearing underlying condition that may need medical attention.


Associated risks

Recent studies suggest hearing problems can be associated with other health conditions including diabetes, stroke, depression, elevated blood pressure and heart attack. Hearing loss also affects communication, and there are various studies which highlight a link between hearing loss and dementia.

The Cochlear Newspoll survey found that more than half of Australians don’t believe or are unaware that hearing loss is linked to a range of other serious health problems. Alarmingly, the greatest lack of awareness is amongst those who have a hearing problem – of these, 84% said hearing is not related to other health problems or they were unsure.

The survey revealed that more than a quarter of Australians thought hearing loss was related to stroke, but only 15% to high blood pressure, 11% to depression and 5% to heart disease. And among those with a hearing impairment, the awareness was significantly worse.

Hearing loss in the elderly magnifies the negative impact of the mental ageing process. Even a small loss can see people withdrawing from society as social situations become too hard and too embarrassing to be a part of.


Hearing loss and dementia

Despite Australians’ lack of awareness, evidence is emerging that deafness may lead to dementia.

Hearing loss is one of the most common complaints in adults over the age of 60, and seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia and other cognitive disorders over time than those who retain their hearing, according to a study by researcher Dr Frank Lin at the National Institute on Aging.

Where there is a mild or moderate or severe hearing loss, the risk of developing dementia is said to increase by two, three and five fold respectively. Any intervention for dementia that could delay the onset by a year is expected to result in a more than 10 per cent decrease in prevalence of dementia in 2050.

In a recent study of 639 people aged 60+ at Johns Hopkins University[6], those with mild cognitive hearing loss (a loss of 25 decibels, meaning they would struggle to follow quiet conversation or a conversation in a noisy room) scored significantly worse in cognitive tests. Their scores suggested their cognitive abilities aged by the equivalent of seven years, compared with people with normal hearing.

Dr Lin has suggested some possible explanations for the association – social isolation, one of the risk factors for dementia, or some underlying brain damage which leads to both hearing and cognitive decline.

“It could also be that if you’re constantly having to expend more (mental) energy decoding what you hear, then it comes at a cost,” Dr Lin said in an interview. “Hearing loss doesn’t directly contribute to dementia, but leads to cognitive load on the brain”.

Maintaining hearing is part of healthy ageing. Even a small loss can see people withdrawing from society as social situations become too hard and too embarrassing to part of.

But hearing loss no longer needs to be part and parcel of the ageing process. There is a vast range of technological options available that allow all patients to hear, no matter what their age or the severity of their hearing loss.


Hearing changes

It’s also crucial to be aware of any changes to hearing quality, even if you wear hearing aids. Our hearing can continue to change as we age. Perhaps you may already have hearing aids but find they are no longer effective. This could be an indication that you need a higher level of treatment, such as a Cochlear Implant.

Getting a hearing test is simple and easy. We don’t hesitate to go to the dentist for check-ups or to the optometrist to get our eyes looked at, so why should our hearing be any different?


Tell us, will you be getting your hearing checked soon?


Associate Professor Catherine Birman

Ear Nose & Throat Surgeon, Associate Professor Catherine Birman, is also Medical Director of SCIC Cochlear Implant Program, an RIDBC service. Associate Professor Birman is an ENT surgeon with subspecialisation in paediatric ENT, and paediatric and adult otology and hearing loss. She completed a Fellowship in 1997 in both paediatric ENT and cochlear implantation. She works at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Hornsby Hospital, Sydney Adventist Hospital and Macquarie University Hospital.

  1. My father had hearing aids from his early 50s. But he refused to wear them until in his 80s he had a major psychotic break that the doctors were convinced was connected to his being deaf. He then began to wear his aids (after they had stabilised his mental condition) and was amazed at the sounds around him. A very silly man and he paid a big price for his stubbornness.

  2. I rarely wear mine as I can hear better without them. They have tweaked this and done that but still wearing them I can

  3. I pressed enter by mistake. Wearing my hearing aid I can’t understand a word anyone is saying and in a shopping centre I’m sure I can hear everyone around me instead of the person who’s talking to me. Having the TV on I can’t understand anyone talking either with the hearing aid. I’ve had two different hearing aids now and both of them have been useless. Fortunately I have good hearing in my other ear but really I just want to up it that little bit more in my bad ear so I can hear the TV when others are watching at the same time. Also softly spoken people are terribly hard to understand. It’s about time I had another visit to the Specialist as I think I really need something better than what I have.

    1 REPLY
    • Margie, you need a program that blocks out background noise and has a forward-facing microphone. You may be able to discuss this with your audiometrist.

  4. I was working in a workshop in Miriamvate when i was young, you could tell when the bosses wife was coming his hand would go up to his aid and turn it off, well it seemed funny to me at the time, LOL.

  5. Can’t understand some people’s aversion to wearing hearing aids. If they couldn’t see to read would they refuse to wear glasses? if they lost their teeth would they refuse to wear dentures? If they had difficulty in walking would they refuse to use a stick or walking frame? etc. I couldn’t do without my hearing aids.

  6. Deafness is also affected by noise. My hearing started deteriorating in my teens from building works in my work environment. I coped until my 30s when I got my first aid, then later two, with stronger and stronger aids until my 50s. Finding they were then only amplifying noise without giving me clarity, I got my first cochlear implant at 54 and a second at 60. Now 66 I hear very well in most (but not all) situations. I recommend implants to anyone whose aids are no longer sufficient for reasonable hearing.

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