Sound of silence – signs of hearing loss

Written by Trudie McConnochie for Seniors Health Insurance.

When your teeth are giving you grief, you go and get a dental check-up. When you’re having trouble reading, you go and get your eyes checked. But what happens when you think your hearing isn’t what it used to be? For many of us, it seems, the answer is nothing – a decision that could have big ramifications in later years. 

According to The Department of Health and Aged Care, about 3.6 million Australians have a level of hearing loss, and around 1.3 million people live with a hearing condition that could actually have been prevented. Despite this, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that it can take the average Australian up to seven years to seek treatment for hearing loss, due to people associating it with “being old”.

Some other common reasons for avoiding being fitted for heating aids is the belief that hearing aids are too expensive, too uncomfortable and because they will make the wearer feel self-conscious or embarrassed.

Louise Hickson, Professor of Audiology at the University of Queensland, led a major study into stigma around hearing loss, funded by the Hearing Industry Research Consortium and soon to be published in the International Journal of Audiology.

She says that when people delay getting hearing aids, they can become socially isolated, which in turn impacts their wellbeing. “People typically wait about eight or nine years from when they first noticed something to when they do something,” Professor Hickson says. “So it takes a while.”

Ageing is the biggest risk factor for hearing loss. Government statistics reveal it affects around half of Australians aged 60 to 70 and 80% of those 80-plus. Other causes include exposure to loud noise, ear diseases and genetics.

“Your hearing changes very slowly by a small amount every year, so it takes you a while to realise that something’s wrong. By accepting that and being prepared to say to other people that you have hearing difficulties is a really big step for people,” Professor Hickson says.

“You’ve always been a fully able person who could do everything and hear everything, and then you realise that your hearing is not as good. The acceptance of hearing loss and the stigma around that – that’s a big hurdle, that’s what we found.”

Long-term impacts

It’s estimated that around 3.6 million Australians have some degree of hearing loss, and as our population ages, that number is predicted to double to more than 7.8 million people by 2060. For those experiencing hearing loss, delaying getting help has a negative effect on relationships, confidence and mental health.

“Social isolation, withdrawal and depression are associated with hearing loss,” Professor Hickson says. “As you grow older, your social world is very important to you, and the big impact of hearing loss is threatening that social world.

“People who come to us talk about not being able to hear their grandchildren, or how they used to go to a bridge club and they couldn’t hear the bids, so they stopped going. The impact of not doing something about hearing loss can make your world smaller and can mean that you don’t have as good a quality of life.”

There’s also emerging evidence linking hearing loss to increased risk of dementia. Although researchers don’t yet understand why, there’s speculation that the isolation caused by hearing loss, or the additional cognitive load from trying to decode sounds, could be factors.

Hearing loss may also impact your work. “There is some research to show that having hearing difficulties can mean you may stop work prematurely. We hear this from people: ‘I can’t chair these meetings anymore, because I can’t hear all the people in the room.’ So it would be important to address your hearing in the workplace – you don’t want that to be a reason that you stopped doing the work that you enjoy.”

Taking action

The support of loved ones is one of the factors that helps people break through the stigma and get help. “You might notice a family member’s hearing difficulties before they do. But it shouldn’t become a scolding of them for not hearing. I think it’s about a supportive conversation around what can you do about this. If people get hearing aids they get really great results these days, so get them to talk to other people they know who have hearing aids and how they find them.”

Pensioners are eligible for free or subsidised hearing treatments via the Australian Government Hearing Services Program, and some health funds also cover costs.

Hearing starts to change after age 50, so Professor Hickson recommends all Australians get their hearing checked every couple of years in the second half of their life. She also says it’s important to pay attention to changes in your social interactions.

“If you’ve stopped doing something, why have you stopped doing it? Is it because you couldn’t hear in that situation, so you don’t enjoy it as much? I’d say that’s a sign you need to take some action, if it’s affecting what you do every day and meaning you’re not having the same engaged quality of life that you used to have.”

Case study

It took about seven years for Tony Love, 67, to get hearing aids, and ultimately it wasn’t concern for his health that prompted him to take action, but concern for his wife. 

When he was in his early 60s, the South Australian freelance journalist and presenter went to see his GP because his wife was frustrated about having to repeat herself often in conversations with him. He was referred to an audiologist, who confirmed he wasn’t processing sounds at certain pitches – but Tony felt the problem didn’t warrant intervention. Recently, however, it became apparent his hearing was getting worse.

“You get into these patterns at home where you’re talking to each other in different rooms and you can’t hear each other and someone’s got to repeat it, or you miss out on the first few words of a conversation, then you have to say, ‘What was that again?’ And eventually it drives everybody mad,” he says.

“I put it off and put it off, and eventually it was like, well, we can’t go on like this, because it’s clearly going to get harder and harder.”

Tony has had hearing aids for a month and although it’s taking time to adjust, they’ve made a “subtle but noticeable” difference to work events and his social life.

“When you’re in a group, say in a restaurant or a party, and there’s a lot of surround sound, it was very difficult to hear, and I would literally be just nodding to be polite. I was starting to notice that I didn’t want to go out into social situations because of that problem. In the month that I’ve had my hearing aids I have noticed it has got better, and I do feel more confident.”

If you think you might have hearing loss, he urges you to see your GP or an audiologist without delay. “The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself from the world and see it deteriorate further to the point where it actually is a bigger challenge to fix.”

Hearing loss devices

Depending on the type of hearing loss, treatment options might involve:

  • Hearing aids: The electronic devices are worn in or behind the ear to make sounds louder and send them to your ear via a speaker. They’re generally used to help people with sensorineural deafness, meaning the inner ear or hearing nerves are damaged.
  • Cochlear implants: The electronic devices are surgically placed into your inner ear. They suit people with sensorineural deafness who don’t benefit from hearing aids.
  • Bone conduction implants: A sound processor, connected to a surgical implant, converts sounds into vibrations and transfers them through your skull bone directly into the inner ear. They’re recommended for people with conductive hearing loss.
  • Assistive listening devices: These include wireless headsets to amplify your TV.
  • Tech supports: A variety of phone apps can help with sounds and communication.
  • Group programs for adults with hearing loss: Learn communication strategies in groups such as the Active Communication Education (ACE) program.

Looking after your health includes keeping your hearing under check. Learn more about how Seniors Health Insurance could help