Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions experienced by older adults, but it’s also one of the most undertreated health concerns. Nearly 80% of adults aged 60-79 have some degree of hearing loss, but only about 30% report being aware of their hearing impairment when tested.
Hearing loss can occur due to age-related physiological changes and repeat exposure to damaging noise. Fortunately, taking proactive steps to safeguard your hearing can go a long way in minimizing hearing loss and its impact on your life.
Causes of Hearing Loss
Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, happens due to natural changes in the inner ear. Most people begin to develop hearing loss in their 30s and 40s, starting with a subtle reduction in the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. Since hearing loss is typically gradual, it’s not surprising that many are unaware of it occurring.
For older adults, hearing loss is most commonly caused by a combination of age-related physiological changes, co-occurring health issues and long-term exposure to noise. Health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes can also damage hearing over time, as can certain medications like high doses of aspirin or ibuprofen, aminoglycoside antibiotics, diuretics and some chemotherapy drugs.
Repeat exposure to noise can also negatively impact hearing and exacerbate age-related hearing loss. Due to the frequent exposure to noise that most of us experience living in big cities, and with the use of portable music players and earphones, new research indicates that hearing loss is now more prevalent and severe than it was in previous decades.
How to Protect Your Hearing
It’s important to take steps to protect your hearing before it’s too late. Hearing loss is also a social loss. It’s a loss for the individual with hearing impairment, a loss for their loved ones and a loss for the community. Untreated hearing loss frequently leads to loneliness, isolation, and depression as a direct result of the negative impact that hearing loss has on social connections.
Here are four tips to proactively protect your hearing:
1. Limit your exposure to loud sounds.
Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB). According to the Canadian Academy of Audiology, noises over 85 dB are considered too loud. For context, the wind rustling a tree is 20 dB, a person talking is 55 dB and the sound of a chainsaw is 115 dB. Exposures to over 120 dB for even a brief period of time can cause permanent damage even after one short exposure. Therefore, it’s important to limit exposure to loud sounds, or to wear hearing protection if you find yourself in a loud environment or use loud equipment.
2. Monitor the volume level on your personal music device.
Whenever we’re in an environment with a lot of background noise, we have a natural inclination to turn up the volume on our personal listening device. The max end of the volume on an Apple iPhone is 100 dB and listening at that level for more than just 10 minutes is harmful to your hearing.
It’s important to monitor both the volume and the length of time spent listening to music. The Canadian Academy of Audiology recommends following the 120/60 rule which is listening at 60% of the volume for 2 hours at a time. If background noise affects your ability to hear at 60% of the volume, invest in noise-cancelling headphones which enable you to moderate the volume level in noisy environments.
3. Speak to your doctor when you notice changes in your hearing.
If you notice any of the following signs and symptoms, it’s best to talk to your doctor right away about these changes in your hearing.
- Withdrawal from conversations
- Avoidance of some social occasions
- Constantly needing to turn up the volume on the television or stereo system
- Hearing muffled sounds and speech
- Trouble hearing consonants
- Often needing to ask people to repeat themselves
- Difficulty hearing certain words or tones, especially in settings with a lot of background noise (e.g., busy restaurants)
4. Get your hearing tested regularly.
Getting your hearing tested once a year is as important as seeing your physician for an annual checkup. “Keeping up with your hearing health not only means understanding your hearing loss, but also means uncovering ways to improve your personal health. Studies suggest that your hearing health may affect many aspects of your overall health including brain function and mental health. By taking a free hearing test and doing regular check-ups, your hearing care professional can help you with solutions that may improve your hearing health and other areas of your life as well,” says Jon Waterhouse, Director of Professional Practice and Registered Hearing Instrument Practitioner at Connect Hearing Canada.
A professional hearing test evaluates the hearing capacity of both ears and determines which volumes and sounds you can hear without difficulty. It’s important to proactively evaluate your hearing because by the time you notice changes in your hearing, the extent of the loss may have already advanced. Annual hearing tests enable you to address hearing loss promptly, and also track changes in your hearing over time.