It comes to most of us sooner or later. We keep turning the TV up until we’ve driven everyone else from the room. And too often we pretend we can hear people talking around us when actually it is just a blur of sounds.
Are you having trouble hearing your TV?
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‘Eleven million Britons have hearing loss – one in six of the population,’ says Dr Melanie Ferguson, an associate professor and consultant clinical scientist at the NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre. ‘It causes problems communicating in everyday life and, left untreated, can lead to social withdrawal. It’s a problem for those close to the person with hearing loss, such as family members and friends, too. Many more than the 11 million people are directly affected by it.’
Of those 11 million, around 92% have mild to moderate hearing loss, and for the majority the problem is age-related. Some 40% of over-50s have the condition. Here’s the latest on what you need to know, and how you can help prevent or alleviate it.
Hearing loss and dementia
Evidence of a link between dementia and loss of hearing has been growing. Most people with dementia are over 70, and the majority of people over 70 have hearing problems, but cause and effect are not entirely evident.
A study led by Professor Gill Livingston, of University College London, listed nine potentially modifiable life factors that contribute to our risk of developing dementia. Top of the list was mid-life hearing loss, which, if treated in every case, would result in 9% fewer total cases of dementia.
What is not yet clear is whether dementia results from social isolation and depression arising from hearing loss, or if it’s down to brain degeneration.
‘Even people with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to get dementia as those with good hearing,’ says Dr Melanie Ferguson. ‘Those with moderate hearing loss are three times more likely. Because hearing loss can affect our ability to communicate… So if you have hearing aids, wear them. And if you don’t have them, and want help with your hearing, go to your GP.’
Signs of hearing loss
Hearing loss usually creeps up gradually, and those close to the person may be the first to notice the onset. If someone finds it hard to hear what others are saying, frequently asking them to repeat what they’ve just said, thinks that they are mumbling, and is often accused by colleagues, friends and family of not listening, it’s likely they have an issue. Similarly, if the volume on their radio or TV is always turned up very loud.
You can take a hearing check on the website of the national charity Action on Hearing Loss. If the findings indicate that you may have hearing loss, they will send you a statement of the results. You can also ask your GP to refer you to an audiologist (the hearing-check statement may help).
Is it time for a hearing test?
How to help protect your hearing
Avoid loud noise
If you’re concerned that your hearing is failing, the obvious course is to have it tested. You should be aware, however, that this could lead to a diagnosis of a serious health condition of which you were not aware.
For example, research has shown there is a link between your hearing – especially low-frequency hearing loss – and your heart. Because your inner ear is sensitive to blood flow, if this is lower than it should be, it could be a sign of cardiovascular disease. So if you are diagnosed with a hearing problem, it is worth seeing your GP about your heart health.
Failing hearing isn’t, of course, always related to age. There are a number of ways in which we can damage it, such as working in a very noisy environment, using equipment such as drills, or frequently going to loud concerts.
Noise doesn’t just damage your hearing, it can also be one of the causes of tinnitus, a condition characterised by sounds in the ear(s) or head, such as ringing, whooshing and clicking, that have no external source. If you experience such symptoms, see your GP, who may refer you to a specialist.
A recent 22-year study of nearly 71,000 women, in the USA, found that those whose diet most closely resembled the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (rich in extra-virgin olive oil, grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and fish), and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or DASH diet (for more details on what this regime entails, turn to p75), were 30% less likely to suffer moderate or severe hearing loss than those whose diets least resembled these regimes.
A paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, meanwhile, drawing on a large cohort study, found evidence to suggest that a high intake of fish and long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) was associated with a lower risk of hearing problems.
Take up running
The cardio-respiratory benefits of running are well documented, but it is less commonly known that it can positively benefit hearing. In a study of more than 1,000 women, conducted at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, researchers found that those with higher levels of aerobic fitness were 6% more likely to have good than bad hearing at both high and low frequencies. Take care, though, since running isn’t the best exercise for everyone. Check with your GP before you start any new exercise regime.
An obvious bonus of becoming more active and eating well is that you will achieve a healthy weight, which in itself might help to safeguard your hearing. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 68,000 women between 1989 and 2009, found that those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30-39 (classified as obese) were 17-22% more likely to experience hearing loss than those with a BMI below 25 (within the normal range), rising to a 25% higher risk in those with a BMI of 40 or more.
Hair cells in the inner ear, responsible for detecting and translating sound, depend on healthy blood flow. Being overweight puts a strain on capillary walls, inhibiting the flow of oxygen to hair cells, which, once damaged, cannot regenerate, resulting in irreparable hearing loss. In addition, high blood pressure can be a cause of tinnitus. More reasons to shed pounds.
Could it be your medicines?
According to Action on Hearing Loss, more than 100 prescription and non-prescription drugs are ‘ototoxic’ and can cause hearing loss, tinnitus and balance problems, especially when taken in high doses. Strong cancer drugs are often the culprit. As always, potential harm must be measured against benefits. Consult your doctor if you have any concerns.
Case study: Kathleen Hill, 75 Worcestershire
‘I first realised that I had a hearing problem when I was 49. I was a teacher and was always urging my students to speak up and not mumble. When I told my mother, who was severely deaf, she told me I should have a hearing test.
‘It showed I had mild to moderate high-frequency loss, although I wasn’t told this at the time. My mother and at least three others in her family had it, too.
‘I now have moderate high-frequency hearing loss. Without hearing aids I have difficulty hearing some consonants. I hear vowels very well, as they are voiced at low frequencies, so that’s not a problem.
‘I’ve been told my problems are both noise- and age-related, so I avoid excessive din when I can, and I have a dB [decibel] measuring app on my phone so that I can check noise levels when I need to.
‘I have NHS digital hearing aids, which have been an absolute lifeline. I would be a semi-recluse without them. Each aid is programmed for either my right or left ear. However, I still had some difficulty hearing in meetings, especially if the speaker was facing away from me.
‘My audiologist suggested I buy an assistive listening device. I bought a Roger Pen [microphone for various listening situations], which is a great help in meetings.’
For more information about listening devices, including the Roger Pen, go to actiononhearingloss.org.uk