Hearing loss may be sudden or so gradual that it takes friends and family to point out there’s a problem. Hearing can begin to fail early, in the third or fourth decade of life, although it’s commonly regarded as a characteristic of the elderly. Next to arthritis and hypertension, it is the third most common chronic disability confronting older adults.
Who is affected?
Statistics Canada reports one in 10 Canadians has a significant hearing problem, including 20 per cent of people over 65 and 40 per cent of those over 75. But a survey for the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) found the average age of people suffering hearing loss was 51. Baby boomers are losing their hearing earlier than their parents or grandparents did.
Why does it happen?
Approximately 90 per cent of people with hearing problems have damage to the sound-sensing cells of the inner ear or the auditory nerve. This may be caused by presbycusis, the progressive permanent loss of hearing that accompanies aging. It seems to affect some families more than others and men more than women, and can result from a blow to the head, viral infection, medication or conditionsuch as diabetes or high blood pressure, which decrease blood supply to the ears. Losses range from difficulty hearing high-frequency sounds to profound deafness.
Ironically, sound can damage the inner ear. The Hearing Foundation of Canada estimates a third of hearing losses are the result of overexposure to noise. Sudden, explosive sound and prolonged exposure to lawn-mower-loud noise over 80 decibels both cause auditory damage.
Conductive hearing losses, such as blockages from a buildup of earwax or a tumour, ruptured eardrum or fluid in the middle ear, can usually be treated medically or surgically.
Tinnitus, a buzzing or ringing, is often associated with hearing loss but because it can be the result of a medical condition, it is important to consult a doctor.
Wear noise-attenuating earmuffs or earplugs when loud noise is unavoidable. Cotton wool will not help. Have ear infections examined by a doctor. An annual flu shot lowers risk of ear infection.
CHS recommends having hearing checked every two years, annually if a problem exists. Have a hearing test performed by an audiologist, a highly qualified professional who assesses the type and degree of hearing problems, prescribes and fits hearing aids and offers counselling.
Coping with hearing loss
A hearing aid must suit an individual’s specific hearing loss pattern and since the device fits in the ear, a mould of the ear canal is needed. Provincial hearing aid programs vary, and coverage has limits. Ian Downie, CARP’s director of volunteers, is also an adviser to the CHS. He says that before purchasing a hearing aid, ask questions. How long is the warranty? How long is the trial period? Will visits to make adjustments incur a fee? How much will ear moulds cost? Will the hearing aid dispenser send he air to the factory for adjustment? How long will the batteries last?
Electronic advances mean smaller, less obtrusive aids and better-quality sound amplification. Conventional analog hearing aids are least expensive but least adjustable. Analog programmable hearing aids use a button or remote control to deal with varying background noise and can be reprogrammed if hearing changes. Digital programmable aids have computer chips and are much more expensive than conventional analog aids. They can be matched to a particular hearing loss pattern and offer better hearing in noisy surroundings.
Some hearing aids have telecoil circuitry, which picks up sound through infrared or FM signals in specially equipped theatres or classrooms. Volume-control telephones help people with hearing loss stay in contact with friends and family. Vibrating or flashing alarms warn of phone calls, ringing doorbells or that it’s time to wake up.
Where to get help
Canadian Hearing Society
416-964-9595 or 1-800-537-6030
Canadian Hard of Hearing Association
613-526-1584 or 1-800-263-8068
Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists
613-567-9968 or 1-800-259-8519
Hearing Foundation of Canada
416-364-4060 or 1-866-432-7968