Each year the World Health Organization designates a day as World Hearing Day, which it uses to raise awareness on how to prevent hearing loss, and to promote ear and hearing care across the world. In 2021, World Hearing Day is the 3rd March.
We take many things in life for granted, until we start to lose it; hearing is one of those things. From our first moments as a baby when we are soothed by the sound of our parents’ voices, to our later years talking and sharing memories with our close family and friends, hearing is an essential part of our lives.
With advances in healthcare, life expectancy is increasing. In the UK we can now reasonably expect to live into our 80s. However, with a larger proportion of our lives spent in older age it is becoming more and more likely that most of us will develop hearing loss and live with it for many years. Even if we do not develop hearing loss ourselves, a close friend or family member will. At present there are estimated to be 12 million adults in the UK with a hearing loss; that’s one in five. As life expectancy increases this is predicted to rise to 14.2 million by 2035 [Royal National Institute for the Deaf estimates using Office for National Statistics population data].
Whilst our communication needs change throughout our lifetime, from the classroom, to the nightclub, to the office, and into older age, there is rarely a time in our lives when hearing well is unimportant to us.
Although they change for everyone over time, our communication needs at a given point in time are very individual too. Two people who share the same working environment, who both have a partner and two children, and both live on a quiet street, might appear on the face of it to have identical communication needs. However, this does not take into account the myriad of factors that can influence our ability to hear in individual situations, from the acoustics of the different listening environments, to the clarity of the speaker’s voice. Hearing healthcare professionals have a duty to use patient-centred care to understand those individual communication needs in order to provide the most effective help and advice.
Hearing Loss and Mental Health
The increased listening effort required if someone has a hearing loss can lead to mental fatigue, which can then adversely impact on other aspects of their life. Even with this increased effort they might not always be able to determine what is being said and if this occurs repeatedly can lead to the person becoming socially withdrawn and isolated. In some cases this can develop into depression.
As we hear, the ears are continually passing sound up to the brain for it to analyse. There is increasing evidence that the reduction in sound information passed to the brain that occurs with hearing loss is associated with a greater risk of developing dementia. As well as the obvious human cost of this, investing in hearing care earlier in life may also help avoid financial outlay on dementia care later in life.
Exposure to a single extremely loud noise (such as an explosion) can irreparably damage hearing instantly, but moderately loud noise, such as that experienced in some occupations on the factory floor, or using power tools can slowly damage hearing over time. Increasingly, recreational noise exposure is becoming a widespread cause of hearing loss with repeated exposure to high volumes in live music venues or nightclubs, and use of headphones at high levels.
Recognising situations that put us at risk of hearing loss and taking steps to limit our exposure, by taking regular breaks or by wearing appropriate ear protection, is an essential first step towards prevention of early-onset hearing loss.
Those at risk of developing hearing loss should have their hearing checked regularly by a hearing healthcare professional.
On average in the UK, it takes a person with hearing loss 10 years before seeking help or advice. However research is increasingly highlighting the importance of accessing help for hearing loss as soon as difficulties are noticed. As well as reducing the mental fatigue and social isolation that come hand-in-hand with hearing loss, the risk of dementia due to hearing loss can be reduced by use of hearing devices.
Early identification of hearing loss may also provide opportunities to tackle the underlying factors contributing to its cause. For example, medication or poorly managed health conditions which can contribute to worsening hearing can be addressed.
Identification of a hearing loss is only part of the story. The first hearing aids were developed in the mid-20th century to help those soldiers who had developed hearing loss due to noise exposure in the Second World War. Since then, advances in hearing healthcare have been huge, and there has never been such an array of technologically advanced hearing devices available to help those with hearing loss. Many hearing aids now are able to communicate directly with smartphones so that phone calls and music can be streamed directly into the ears, with adjustments made to take into account any hearing loss. There are devices that can similarly link the TV to hearing aids, there are handheld remote controls so that those with poor dexterity can operate their hearing aids, and invisible hearing aids for those who wish to keep their hearing loss private. Cochlear implants help those whose hearing loss has progressed to be severe or profound in severity, and bone-anchored hearing devices are available for those whose hearing loss is due to poor sound transmission to the inner ear. In short, there are solutions to suit all types and degrees of hearing loss, and most importantly, to suit everyone’s individual communication needs.
If you are concerned about your hearing and want to find out more, please contact us.