It’s natural for hearing to deteriorate as we get older, but there are things you can do now to help, says Dr Mel Wynne-Jones

Woman listening to music

How to protect your hearing: Keep the volume at a reasonable level when you’re listening to music ©iStock

 

Eleven million people (one in six) in the UK are living with hearing loss, according to a new report, and this could rise to 15.6 million by 2035.

But we often don’t notice early damage, think it’s ‘normal’ or blame others for ‘mumbling’, and take an average of 10 years to seek help for hearing loss.

Delays can make things worse and affect our work and speech, limit activities and relationships, and double our risk of developing depression.

How hearing works

Sound enters our ear canal and strikes the eardrum, sending vibrations across three tiny bones (ossicles) in the middle ear to the inner ear (cochlea).

This contains fluid and tiny ‘hairs’ that turn sound into electrical signals, which travel along the auditory nerve to the brain, where the sound is interpreted.

Having two ears means that we can locate the source.

Our cochleas also help us to balance.

Types of deafness

Blocks along this pathway (such as ear wax, middle ear fluid after a cold or barotrauma – eardrum damage caused by flying or loud noise) can cause conductive deafness, as can a perforated eardrum or otosclerosis, which affects the ossicles.

Sensorineural deafness

is caused by cochlear or nerve damage, and is often age-related (presbycusis).

But viruses, head injuries, repeated exposure to loud noise, some medicines, genetic disorders and, occasionally, tumours can cause it too.

However, you may have a mixture of both or other ear-related symptoms such as dizziness or tinnitus (false sounds, such as hissing, produced by cochlear malfunction).

Tests you may need

See your GP. Unless it’s something simple, such as wax, she’ll refer you to
a specialist (as an emergency if deafness comes on suddenly).

You’ll need a thorough ear, nose and throat examination and hearing tests (audiometry, tympanometry and tests for electrical signals) to see whether you have conductive or sensorineural deafness, or both.

If deafness starts prematurely, or there’s an imbalance between right and left ears, you may also need an MR scan of your brain and ear canal.

Treatment and support

You may need specific treatment (such as surgery), but you’re more likely to benefit from a hearing aid – unfortunately, only one in three of us who needs them actually uses them!

But they can make a huge difference and are much better than they used to be, although they may take some getting used to.

Small digital aids are available on the NHS, which also has services to help with communication problems at work or at home.

If a hearing aid won’t help, children (and some adults) may be offered a cochlear implant which detects sound and stimulates the auditory nerve.

The charity Action on Hearing Loss provides fact sheets, advice and information on protecting your hearing and all aspects of hearing loss, including employment rights, disability benefits, lip-reading, sign language, tinnitus and helpful products and equipment.

Call their helpline on 0808 808 0123 or visit actiononhearingloss.org.uk.

5 ways to protect your ears

1 Don’t stick anything down your ear canal.

2 Remember that listening to any sound at a high volume (more than 89 decibels) for more than five hours a week can permanently damage your hearing, but you may not notice until it’s too late.

3 Wear ear defenders for noisy jobs. Employers should provide them if necessary, or buy your own or wear earplugs for noisy DIY.

4 Keep the volume down if listening to music, especially through headphones. Use noise-cancelling ones.

5 Stand well away from noisy speakers in nightclubs or public places. If you can’t hear someone two metres away unless they’re shouting, it’s probably too noisy.