Hearing loss is not as minor as it sounds

Have you been feeling that others are mumbling or speaking very softly these days? Have you been turning up the volume of your television or sitting closer to it than before?

Have you been feeling that others are mumbling or speaking very softly these days? Have you been turning up the volume of your television or sitting closer to it than before?

According to Statistics Canada, over one million Canadians have a diagnosed hearing impairment and it is suspected that an equal number are experiencing hearing impairment, but are undiagnosed. It is estimated that more than half of Canadians over the age of 65 will experience some hearing difficulties.

Three types of hearing loss exist, depending on the part of the hearing system that is affected. Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound is not conducted efficiently through the outer ear canal to the ear drum and the inner ear. This is associated with conditions such as wax impaction, tumours in the ear, fluid in the middle ear, infections, perforated eardrum etc. These cause difficulty in hearing faint sounds and can be corrected medically or surgically.

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or to the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain. The common causes of SNHL are aging-related changes in the ear, overexposure to loud noise, medications and chemicals, hereditary hearing loss, head injury, or structural abnormalities of the inner ear. SNHL reduces our ability to hear high frequency consonants in normal speech as well as the ability to hear faint sounds and can be managed with hearing aids.

While 25 per cent of hearing loss is attributed to aging, a larger percentage is noise-induced. Seniors with SNHL have difficulty distinguishing consonants such as z, s, sh, f, p, k, t, and g. This affects ability to understand speech. Low-frequency hearing loss has little impact on speech recognition.

Seniors with high-frequency hearing loss will usually try to compensate by increasing the volume of the TV and radio, or moving closer to the TV, because the recognition of consonants can be increased by simply increasing the loudness. Alternatively, they may reduce social interactions to avoid embarrassing situations.

Hearing loss can affect our self-esteem, and lead to depression and social withdrawal. In a 10-year longitudinal study, persons with hearing loss were found to have increased brain tissue loss, especially in the parts of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech. This highlights the importance of treating hearing loss sooner rather than later.

Another study conducted at John Hopkins Institute links hearing loss to three-fold increased risk of falling, 36 per cent higher probability of prolonged illnesses, and 56 per cent higher risk of depression.

The inference is that hearing loss is not to be viewed as an inconsequential part of aging, but as a real health concern.

Padmaja Genesh holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, and has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. Comment to padmajaganeshy@yahoo.ca

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