You can't see it, but hearing loss is affecting an increasing number of Canadians. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, this "invisible disability" affects more than 10 per cent of Canadians -- that's over 3 million people. It's one of the most common disabilities in Canada -- and the number affected is already rising.

What's behind the increase? The aging of the population is one culprit. Between 40 and 50 per cent of people over the age of 65 currently have a hearing loss.

"We will naturally lose our hearing as we get older and it happens at different times and different rates for each person," says Kate Dekok, Chief Audiologist at ListenUP! Canada. "Hearing loss relating to aging is irreversible and not medically treatable."

We're even losing our hearing earlier than in the past thanks in part to noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). The National Hearing Foundation of Canada warns baby boomers are starting feel the effects in their 40s and 50s -- that's 20 years earlier than their parents' generation.

Children and teens are at risk too. U.S. studies have shown that 12.5 per cent of young children have already been affected by hearing loss. Experts warn that adolescents and teens are a high-risk group.

There isn't a magic pill or surgery to fix hearing loss. While we can't change factors like injury, heredity or age, we can take steps to keep our hearing in top form through prevention and treatment.

12 tips for better hearing

Avoid loud noises. Studies show that up to one half of all NIHL cases could have been prevented or reduced by limiting exposure to noise. Whenever possible, stay clear of damaging noises and environments. For example, keep your car windows closed in heavy traffic, avoid seats near the speakers at concerts and choose restaurants where you can converse without raising your voice.

Limit exposure. Many sounds we take for granted can cause harm if they're too loud, too long or we hear them too often. The higher the number of decibels (dB), the shorter the amount of time your ears should endure it. Consider:

- Prolonged exposure to noises over 70-85 dB (like heavy city traffic or power tools) can cause gradual hearing loss. (Remember: a normal conversation is about 55-65 db). Constant noise in the workplace and long hours of listening to music can have cumulative effects.

- We shouldn't be exposed to sounds at 100 dB for more than 15 minutes. However, music in bars and restaurants can range 90-110 dB.

- Regular exposure lasting longer than a minute to 110 dB sounds (like rock concerts and heavy equipment) can cause hearing loss.

- Even short exposure to sounds over 120 dB (like a firecracker, shotgun blast or ambulance siren) can result in permanent damage.

Wear protection. Forget stuffing tissues in your ears. You need serious protection like ear plugs or ear muffs (the protective kind, not the fuzzy ones) when you're exposed to noises over 85 dB -- like when you're using lawnmowers, snow blowers and power tools.

If you're exposed to noise at your job or while participating in recreational activities, make sure you know and follow all safety procedures.

Set the volume. Home and car stereo systems and personal stereo systems can reach ear-damaging levels of 110 dB. Headphones are especially risky, and Health Canada warns that sounds levels can reach dangerous levels (especially with tight-fitting ear buds.)

In addition to moderating listening time and reducing competing background noise, experts recommend putting limits on the volume. Check your devices to see if they have features to set the maximum volume. Alternatively, get out a pen and mark the maximum level on your stereo. Ideally, you should be able to hear someone speaking to you in a normal voice from a meter away.

Give them a rest. Like an injury that needs protection from another blow, we should protect our ears from further damage. If you've been exposed to potentially damaging sound levels (like a sudden noise or a rock concert) you should give your ears a break for a while. Be extra careful to avoid loud noises and wear protection, particularly if you're experiencing a buzzing or ringing in the ears.

If you're around constant noise, give your ears a break for a few minutes throughout the day.

Keep it out of your ears. People can also damage their ears by inserting things in the canal. Those double-ended cotton swabs have many uses, but they should never go in your ears.

Avoid loud toys. A gift-shopping tip for the youngsters in your life: avoid items that make loud sounds. According to Health Canada, toys can't exceed 100 dB, but young children often hold toys close to their heads.

Watch for the signs. Some of the signs of hearing loss include:

- Trouble following conversations, especially in noisy situations or over the phone. It may sound like people are mumbling, and women and children may be harder to hear.

- Asking others to repeat something, or misinterpreting something that is said.

- Turning up the volume on the TV or radio.

- Feeling tired or irritable after long conversations.

- Appearing distracted or withdrawn in social situations.

Get regular check-ups. Dekok recommends that all adults over the age of 45 have their hearing checked annually -- especially if they already have a hearing loss.

Any change in hearing should be examined because it isn't always age or noise-related. Dekok notes that some conditions like otosclerosis, a block of wax in the ear canal or a perforated eardrum are treatable and hearing can be restored.

Get expert advice. If you've noticed these signs or you're worried about hearing loss, talk to a doctor or audiologist. Left undetected and untreated, hearing loss can have serious consequences like damaging relationships, making it difficult to function at work or school and withdrawal from social situations. It can even put your health and safety in jeopardy.

Check out the latest technology. Forget the stigma: Dekok reports that hearing aids have come along way in recent years. Not only are they more comfortable and more discrete, the features are more sophisticated too. For example, they can deal with wind, reduce noise and even focus in one speaker (and they don't unexpectedly squeal anymore). They can also wirelessly connect with each other and with devices like laptops, cell phones, PDAs and televisions thanks to Blue-tooth technology.

"The design and form of today's hearing aids are something very different than what you are thinking of," Dekok reports. "Hearing aids are morphing into a communication device. Soon you won't be able to tell if it is a hearing aid, MP3 headphones, or Bluetooth device."

Don't be shy about taking them for a "test drive" too. Clinics like ListenUP! Canada let clients try out hearing aids so they can make an informed decision.

Educate yourself and others. In addition to learning about hearing loss yourself, you can help protect family members like children and grandchildren by teaching them how to prevent it too. Help others understand what kinds of environments are risky, and what steps they should take to prevent problems.

You can also take action by working with community projects and advocacy groups. For example, donate time or money to a cause like the Hearing Foundation of Canada. Also, look for educational or consumer campaigns like Classical 96.3 FM's Anti-Noise Pollution League that are working to make a change in communities -- like fighting risky noise levels in restaurants.

Between noise-related hearing loss and Canada's aging population, hearing loss issues aren't going to decrease anytime soon. What we can do is give our ears the same prevention and treatment as we would any other part of our body.

ON THE WEB
For more information about hearing loss, check out the sources we used for this article:
Canadian Hard of Hearing Association
Health Canada -- Hearing Loss and Leisure Noise
The Hearing Foundation of Canada

ListenUP Canada
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Sean Locke

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