More and more Australians are losing their hearing — and not just the older populations. Here's how to take care of your ears
Hearing loss is on the rise in Australia, with the current figure of around one in six predicted to increase to one in four by 2050 with our ageing population. But crunch the numbers and it’s not just baby boomers who are suffering from poor hearing. Through lifestyle choices and repeated exposure to loud sounds, Gen X and Gen Y cohorts could very well soon be labelling themselves as the “say that again” generations.
Multi generations of Australians are putting their hearing at risk, it seems. According to Professor David Ryugo, head of the Hearing Research Laboratory at Sydney’s Garvan Institute, the impact of loud industrial and recreational noise is something we just aren’t taking seriously enough. And we should be.
“Loud noise is a bit like radiation or UV exposure: a little bit is OK but a lot is dangerous.”
“Loud noise is a bit like radiation or UV exposure: a little bit is OK but a lot is dangerous, because the ear keeps track of how much noise it’s exposed to,” Prof Ryugo says.
Over time, repeated and prolonged exposure to sound in excess of 85 decibels (or dB, the unit of measure for sound) can cause hearing loss. To give you an idea, conversation runs at around 60dB, motorbikes 95dB, trucks between 90-110dB and gunshot at around 150dB.
That’s just the stuff we know to be super noisy. There are also things that humans expose themselves to daily without giving a second thought, which may exceed safe levels: hair dryers, vacuum cleaners — even grinding coffee beans for a morning pick-me-up.
It’s a shame we aren’t protecting one of our most valuable senses, because Prof Ryugo says most humans are born with near perfect hearing. “If our hearing at birth was any more sensitive, we’d hear the air movement in our ear drums,” he says.
The ear is made up of the outer, middle and inner ear. You are able to hear because of tiny hair cells called stereocilia in the ear, which are constantly in motion, a bit like finger coral moving with the swell of the ocean.
Audiologist and naturopath Shevawn Becker says stereocilia change mechanical motion or the movement of sound waves to nerve impulses, which can be sent to the brain so they can be heard. “But stereocilia can be damaged by sound waves that are too large or too constant; the sound waves enter the cochlea but can’t be sent to the brain,” she says. “The resulting decrease in auditory stimulation rewires the brain and shrinks the brain’s auditory part, which impacts on its ability to decipher and comprehend speech.”
According to the World Health Organization, if you don’t have a hearing threshold of 25dB or better in both ears you have a hearing loss. For some people, hearing loss occurs just in one ear, while others have it in both — and even with a mild hearing loss it can be difficult to decipher conversation in noisy restaurants, or unless the person is facing you.
Rock music can peak at 150Db which, as you’ll recall, is around the same as a gun being fired. It’s enough to seriously jeopardise your hearing over time.
Hearing loss can be congenital (meaning you’re born with it) or acquired, which may be the result of a singular event (a severe blow to the head), some diseases, chronic ear infections or a series of events (repeated exposure to loud noise).
Becker says some antibiotics and cancer drugs may also cause hearing loss. “Antibiotics in the aminoglycoside family and cancer drugs poison the stereocilia by allowing toxins to build up inside or damage the wall, causing stereocilia death,” she says.
Recurrent or chronic ear infections or fluid behind the eardrum may also cause hearing loss, particularly in children. Dr Elizabeth Sigston, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, says that, for kids who get a lot of ear infections, grommets can help. This can sometimes be the case for adults as well.
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss can be due to a blockage like ear wax (or a toddler shoving a pea in their ear). This is often remedied by removing the blockage. If you’re in the habit of jabbing cotton buds in your ears, don’t. “The ear is designed to self-clean, wax is there to catch dirt,” says Dr Sigston. “If you need to clean your ear, just use the corner of a washer to remove wax as it comes out. A cotton bud will push wax back on itself, which can cause the ear to become blocked.”
Ear canal infections can also cause problems with hearing and pain. Both adults and children should use quality waterproof earplugs if not swimming in pristine water so as to avoid infections in the ear canal.
Early signs of hearing loss
Are you driving your partner nuts by cranking up the TV volume? Is your partner returning the favour with their constant mumbling? If you are nodding your head, book in for a hearing test.
Agnieszka Kosidlo, senior audiologist at Better Hearing Australia, says these are among the most common early warning signs. “Not hearing the TV or phone as well as struggling with the clarity of words are usually signs there is a problem,” she says.
It can be tough even with a mild hearing loss. Not being able to decipher sounds puts a strain on your brain because, according to Kosidlo, you’re always a little bit out of sync in a conversation. “You have to try to understand what the person’s saying based on visual information or the context of the conversation,” she says. “You’re always a little bit behind and trying to catch up.”
Can’t get your kids to turn down the volume?
Let them read this. Rockers like Sting, Chris Martin from Coldplay, Will.i.am from The Black Eyed Peas, and rapper Plan B all have hearing loss from repeated exposure to loud sound. Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR) says rock music can peak at 150Db which, as you’ll recall, is around the same as a gun being fired. It’s enough to seriously jeopardise your hearing over time.
A new generation of musicians these days are aware that exposure to loud sounds will impact on their hearing and they wear custom-made earplugs made from an impression of their ear canal to their own gigs. And so should you if you go along.
And, if you are exposed to loud noise, Becker says you should give your ears a rest afterwards for at least 48 hours.
Looking after your hearing naturally
Another thing that will help your hearing is to stay healthy. “Exercising, having blood pumping effectively to the cochlea, stimulates circulation, allowing oxygen and nutrients to be fed/delivered to the auditory system, helping it to remain healthy and working to its full potential,” says Becker. Staying hydrated will also help and increase your vitamin A, B-complex and E intake through eating leafy greens, eggs, nuts, seeds and fish.
“If your child is wearing ear buds or headphones and you can hear the music, it’s definitely too loud.”
Looking after your hearing will improve your quality of life because, if you can’t hear properly, it can be socially isolating. And, according to Dr Sigston, you need to start early. “Kids shouldn’t be given mobile phones until they absolutely need them,” she says, “because there is evidence to suggest that use of mobiles is associated with nerve hearing loss in young children.”
The other thing, of course, is that kids love to crank up the volume and, if they’re plugged in, it’s hard to tell how loud it really is. “If your child is wearing ear buds or headphones and you can hear the music, it’s definitely too loud,” she says.
Dr Sigston also recommends parents get all kids’ ears tested before they start school. “Some children do have fluid in their ears that can affect their clarity of speech due to the effect on the way they hear words,” she says. “For example, a common problem is mispronunciation of the letter P.”
Dealing with tinnitus?
A symphony of crickets singing, screeching or loud buzzing isn’t really music to the ears but, for the 10 per cent of people who suffer from severe tinnitus, it’s their everyday reality.
Becker says tinnitus has several main causes, including wax blocking the ear canal, some joint problems, sinus pressure and stress. “It’s important to learn how to destress,” she advises. “Listen to soothing music, try meditation, tai chi or yoga, seek professional advice on ways to cope with stress and become part of a support network like the Australian Tinnitus Association.”
It can also help to reduce hyperactivity in the body through reducing your intake of caffeine, soft drinks, salt, artificial sweeteners, additives and preservatives.
When sound causes pain
Some people also suffer super sensitivity to noise loudness changes, which cause severe discomfort (hyperacusis). Dr Ryugi says this condition can be socially crippling. “People who have it are afraid to go out, even to a friend’s house for dinner — the clatter of putting dishes in the sink can cause pain,” he says.
Because tinnitus and hyperacusis can be symptoms of an underlying cause, your first port of call should be your GP.
Breaking down the barriers
Once upon a time those who wore glasses would potentially be the brunt of jokes or name calling. Now that’s pretty much a thing of the past. These days, celebrities (and those trying to look über cool) wear glasses with non-prescription frames.
We might be a few decades away from hearing aids becoming a fashion accessory but, pretty soon, wearing hearing aids will be a new kind of normal for more and more of the population.
That’s if those who suffer hearing loss take action to rectify it. Even when a hearing loss is noticed, it seems we’re a little reticent to do anything about it. According to Dr Ryugi, it can take between seven and 10 years between when a hearing loss is noticed or diagnosed to when the person gets treatment.
Types of hearing aids
Many modern hearing aides are sleek and barely there, while others are fitted in the inner ear so you don’t even see them at all. The most common type is worn behind the ear (BTE) and is suitable for all types of hearing loss. Then there are those worn in the ear (ITE), in the canal (ITC) or wholly in the canal (CIC); these work well for mild to moderate hearing loss. At the other end of the scale, cochlear and auditory brainstem implants are effective in some cases of profound deafness.
There are also assistive devices to turn up the volume (so to speak). These can include vibrating phones, wireless headphones for the TV and more.
Let the buyer beware
Top-of-the-line hearing aids can cost in excess of $14,000, others around $10,000 — overseas companies will sell them for a fraction of that, but you won’t get ongoing service and backup. Some hearing aids up to a certain standard bear no cost to the wearer if they are on government benefits.
Organisations like Better Hearing Australia are independent authorities on hearing loss management. Their message is clear. It pays to shop around, not only for the price tag attached to the actual product but the whole package, including the fitting process and after-sales service, which includes the ongoing relationship you’ll have with your service provider.
“The market is focused on the technology, with a lot of emphasis on the product,” says Kosidlo. “Some hearing aids claim to have better-than-normal hearing (so be conscious of marketing); even people with normal hearing have limitations with background noise.”
Also, she suggests that you see what the company offers in terms of back-up warranty and support. “They should provide you with communication strategies when you go out to restaurants and so on. Consumers really have the right to expect or even demand that of their hearing aid supplier.”
Finally, always trial the hearing aids that fit within your budget. “You’ll often be offered top of the range, but then you have nothing to compare them against,” cautions Ms Kosidlo.
Did you know?
A growing body of research shows older Australians with untreated hearing loss are five times more likely to suffer from dementia.
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