Can you hear us?

Are you noticing any changes in your hearing? We take a look at the signs of hearing loss and what to do about hearing change.

Changes to human hearing happen to all of us, though many of us never suddenly notice a shift, as these changes can happen very gradually over time. For others, the change might be connected to a particular event or illness, and the hearing loss or change is significant enough to be alarmingly noticeable. Either way, our ears are very much like our eyes – we should all be getting a regular hearing test. Getting an eye test and some glasses – or upgrading your specs – is notion that most of us are aware of and comfortable with because it’s a visible aid. For hearing impairment or loss, it can be a case of “out of sight, out of mind” – and that means many are needlessly suffering with sub-par hearing without needing to. The team at ConnectAbility is experienced in this area, and providing advice on hearing loss to our clients.

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What are the signs of hearing impairment or loss?

There are quite a few signs of hearing loss or impairment, and making the time to check in with yourself about these symptoms can help prompt you to get your hearing checked regularly. These signs and symptoms of hearing loss can include:

Trouble hearing consonants

The sounds we hear are heavily dominated by vowel sounds, and when hearing is impaired it is much more difficult to hear the more subtle sounds of consonants in spoken words. A particular tell is if you feel as though you are often missing the beginning or end of a word.

Muffled speech or sounds

Often referred to as ‘cotton wool ears’, this is a very accurate description of muffled hearing. Sounds might be heard as though there is a covering over the ears which makes sounds less defined, or seem further away. Ear plugs are one PPE device that deliberately muffle sounds for safety reasons, but hearing like that normally is not what we want!

Difficulty hearing speech or music in noisy environments

Most of the time, our brains and ears work together to process many sounds at once. They can even zone in on the sound they want to pay the most attention to – such as the conversation of a friend in a bustling café. One sign that you are experiencing difficulty hearing is if you are suddenly having more trouble than usual being able to decipher spoken words, or music you wish to listen to from the surrounding environmental noise.

Frequently asking others to change their speech for you

If you are starting to ask your friends and family to slow down their speech, repeat words or sentences regularly, or to ‘speak up’ and increase their speaking volume – this can be a clear sign that you are experiencing hearing loss or impairment.

Noticing differences in hearing between your ears

Not all hearing loss is equal, and when there is a bigger change in one ear than the other, it is especially noticeable. Becoming aware of that difference is a strong sign that it’s time to get a hearing check.

Familiar sounds suddenly seem different

If you’re noticing that familiar sounds such as loved music, your pet’s noises, the voices of family and friends, or changed familiar environmental noises – this can be a sign that you’re experiencing hearing change or loss. You may no longer be hearing certain frequencies, and this will change your hearing overall.

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What causes hearing loss, impairment or hearing change?

There are many things that can cause changes to the way we hear, and learning about them can often prompt people to book in for a hearing test. This is because many of the causes of hearing loss or change will look familiar to us – there are very few people alive who have not exposed their ears to some level potential damage, and none of us escape the effects of aging! Let’s take a look at what can cause changes to our hearing:

Aging

The degeneration of the inner ear occurs in humans gradually over time, but is especially noticeable and predictable in those aged 65 and over. The rate of degeneration in hearing begins speeding up in this age range, and continues to decline over the remainder of life. This is a normal, natural part of aging – the difference is that now we have the tests and technology to manage it to an impressive degree.

Damaged inner ear

Hairs and nerve cells located in the cochlear – a small spiral shaped bone inside the ear that is the key to measuring sound, and passing on the interpretation to the brain – can experience wear and tear over time due to aging. However, they can also be damaged suddenly by being subjected to exceptionally loud noises such as gunshots, explosions, car backfires, loud concerts or music, and alarms. Other noises that can cause inner ear damage can be environmental – such as the loud noises experienced in construction, farming and aviation jobs. While these noises may not be as aggressive as a gunshot, the frequency of exposure can cause the same amount of damage over time.

Bone growths, tumours or ear infections

Any of these afflictions can cause hearing loss in the inner or middle ear. Those who suffer from frequent ear infections can suffer more damage to their hearing than those who don’t, and bone growths and ear tumours cause obstructions or pressure changes that affect hearing. They can also affect vestibular function, causing changes to balance and spatial awareness.

Build-up of earwax

Ear wax – also known as cerumen – is a normal and natural bodily function that catches debris and bacteria, slowly pushing it out of our ears. However, blockages and build-up of ear wax can sometimes occur. This will cause changes to hearing, generally having a muffling affect. If you suspect a build-up of ear wax, you can visit your doctor to have it removed. Some individuals suffer from an over production of ear wax, and having it removed regularly might be a necessity.

Ruptured eardrum

Also known as a ‘tympanic membrane perforation’, direct damage to the ear drum causes hearing impairment, loss or changes. This means that a small (or large) hole has been torn in the membrane, and unsurprisingly this type of injury is especially painful. Sudden blasts of loud noise, abrupt pressure changes such as those in airplanes or diving, and poking the eardrum with objects like cotton tips can cause a rupture in the ear drum. Medical treatment for ruptured ear drums can differ depending on cause and severity, but you should seek treatment immediately to help avoid infection and further damage.

Illness

Some illnesses can cause permanent hearing damage, particularly those that cause high fevers such as meningitis, chickenpox and mumps.

Medications

Some medications and drugs can have effects on your hearing, or cause long term damage to your inner ear. Some of these drugs include chemotherapy, Viagra and gentamicin (antibiotic). Others may cause temporary changes when taken in high doses such as Aspirin, anti-Malaria drugs, loop diuretics and other pain relievers.

Heredity

Some people have genetic predispositions to hearing conditions, loss or changes over time.

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Different types of hearing loss

There are three different classifications of hearing loss that you may be suffering from, or will be diagnosed with – so becoming familiar with the terms can be helpful! These explanations will already start to seem familiar, after learning about the symptoms and causes.

Sensorineural hearing loss

This is the most common type of hearing loss, caused by wear and tear on the nerves and hair cells of the inner ear. This damage occurs naturally as part of the aging process, but also through a lifetime of exposure to sounds. Sensorineural hearing loss cannot be cured through medical procedures, but hearing can be improved and supported through the use of hearing aids.

Conductive hearing loss

This type of hearing loss is most commonly caused by some type of obstruction in the ear. This could be a build-up of ear wax, tumour, bone growth, foreign object or a build-up of fluid. This obstructions interferes with the proper conduction of sound, causing hearing loss or change. Most of the time, conductive hearing loss can be treated and resolved with a medical procedure or medication, without leaving permanent damage.

Mixed hearing loss

Where damage or loss of hearing is being caused by both Sensorineural and conductive factors, this is classified as mixed hearing loss. For example, some sufferers of hearing loss or change may have damage to their ears caused both by long term exposure to noisy environments, and a build-up of ear wax. The important thing here is to have your ears checked by a doctor to determine the cause of the issue, before deciding how to treat it.

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How does hearing change as we age?

Many of us may be wondering – why does hearing change as we age? Also known as presbycusis, age-related hearing loss or change is a normal and relatively expected development in the human life cycle. Almost all of us can expect some hearing change as we get older.

Age-related hearing loss most often occurs gradually and equally across both ears, so it is easy to overlook until it becomes obvious. It is not unusual for a family or friend to point it out to the sufferer, as their perceptions have not picked up such a slow change.

Hearing loss or changes as we age can put our safety at risk, and lead to feelings of social isolation. This can be due to trouble hearing important safety features such as smoke or home alarms, car horns or approaching traffic and difficulty hearing important verbal instructions – such as those given by your doctor. The social aspect comes in when it becomes difficult to hear speech or music clearly, leaving those suffering hearing loss feeling misunderstood, confused or embarrassed.

Getting a hearing test

If you’re suffering from any of the signs or symptoms of hearing loss or impairment listed in this article – don’t worry! Getting a hearing test is fast and easy, and the Australian Government Hearing Services Program provides access to subsidised hearing services and devices to eligible people. There are different types of hearing tests available, and many clinics offer free 15 minute hearing tests that will either determine the issue, of narrow down which further hearing test your require.

At ConnectAbility, our case managers can connect our clients to trusted hearing test facilities as part of our aged care services.

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What is the best hearing loss treatment?

The best hearing impairment treatment depends entirely on the cause, but can generally be put into one of three categories. These include:

Medical procedures for hearing loss

These vary depending on the cause, but could be to remove obstructions like bone growths, tumours, ear wax, foreign objects like insects, fluid drainage or to install a cochlear implant.

Medications for hearing loss

Generally an antibiotic medication will be prescribed for infections in the ear that are causing changes to hearing, or complete hearing loss.

Hearing aids and hearing devices

An impressive range of technology now exists to aid hearing externally, via different types of hearing aids. They all work first by using a microphone to pick up sounds around you. This sound is sent to an amplifier, making the sound louder for you. Lastly, a receiver sends the amplified sound into your ear.

There are many different styles of hearing aids, and each will suit people differently depending on their condition and preference. Our strongest advice is that you do not purchase hearing aids off the internet unless you already have one, and are re-ordering a specific model. This is because they can often be ill-fitting, which leads to them either performing badly or being discarded due to discomfort. The best course of action is always to start with seeing your doctor, who will then refer you on to a hearing specialist to fit right type of hearing aid for you.

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Hearing loss as you age is normal

All of us will experience some form of hearing loss, or changes to our hearing as we get older. This is no different to our skin wrinkling, hair turning grey or lessened mobility – all expected and natural parts of getting older. Some people can put off having a hearing test or dealing with a hearing problem due to embarrassment, or simply because they haven’t noticed yet. Imagine missing out on favourite music, or the sound of a loved one’s voice without even knowing!

ConnectAbility is committed to providing our clients access to the right information and services that help support their health and quality of life. Hearing is one of our 5 senses, and such contributes an immense amount of stimulation and accessibility in our lives. Humans communicate in more than one way, but verbal communication is one of the biggest. Those that are born with normal hearing and lose it over time will not know Australian sign language – also known as Auslan – and will need support to stay connected to their community and engaged with life.

The case managers at ConnectAbility help their clients connect to important services like hearing tests, and navigate funding to access hearing aids and medical procedures relating to them. If you’re experiencing hearing loss or changes – contact your ConnectAbility case manager today, and get the advice you need to start hearing the world around you with clarity.

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