4 Common Hearing Loss Myths
Hearing loss is the second most common disability in the UK. It affects one in six of us, and yet, research has discovered that we wait an average of 10 years before seeking treatment for it. Although it impacts more than 40% of people over 50, and 70% of people over 70, almost half (47%) of the UK population has never had a hearing test. If one thing is certain, it’s that Brits don’t want to address hearing loss, but why?
In truth, there are many reasons. Some are worried about the stigma attached to hearing aids, whereas others are afraid to adapt to a disability. The most common reasons, however, are that people simply do not know enough about hearing loss or are discouraged by misinformation. It is the myths about hearing loss that often prevents people from seeking the help they need. To break the cycle, people need to know the truth about hearing loss, which is why the most common myths have been debunked below:
Myth: “Hearing Loss Only Affects the Elderly”
Truth: Hearing loss affects people of all ages. Age-related damage to the inner ear, otherwise known as presbycusis, is the most prevalent cause of hearing loss, but there are many others too. These include:
- Loud Noise – any sound over 85 decibels can damage your hearing. The modern world is full of noise – concerts, nightclubs, traffic, construction sites – which is why people are at a real risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Younger generations are at an even higher risk because of the lifestyles they lead. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices, with this applying to nearly 50% of people aged 12-35. It has also been estimated that 17% of 12-19-year-olds already have some degree of noise-induced hearing loss.
- Ototoxic Medication – there are over 100 prescription and over-the-counter drugs that have been linked to hearing loss. These drugs are called ototoxic and can damage the inner ear causing hearing loss. The risk is usually small, and hearing loss can often be reversed if the drug is discontinued, however, sometimes the damage is permanent. There is a higher risk when taking ototoxic medication in larger doses and higher strengths to treat conditions like cancer.
- Pregnancy Complications – there are 50,000 children who are deaf in the UK. This is often due to complications during pregnancy, or because they have been born with hereditary hearing loss. Children can be born with ear anomalies, which is when the size or shape of the outer, middle, or inner ear is different than usual. It can change the appearance of the ear and affect the child’s ability to hear.
- Otosclerosis – this a condition in which there is an abnormal bone growth inside the ear. It can cause the bones inside the ear to fuse together and is a common cause of hearing loss in young adults and pregnant women.
Myth: “Hearing Loss Does Not Affect Your Overall Health”
Truth: There are a range of emotional, psychological, and physical difficulties associated with untreated hearing loss. In fact, it can affect your overall health in more ways than you can imagine. These include:
Cognitive Decline – hearing loss is connected to dementia and may even be responsible for one tenth of all 47 million dementia cases worldwide. One of the main theories is that the longer that hearing loss is left untreated, the quicker the brain becomes exhausted by straining to hear all the time. Mental energy is depleted, and so the brain takes power needed for other vital functions like decision-making and memory retention. Several studies have demonstrated that people with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia. The risk increases three-fold for those with moderate hearing loss, and five-fold for a severe hearing impairment.
- Mental Health Conditions – the prevalence of mental health problems in those with untreated hearing loss ranges from 30-60%. Mental and emotional effects include anger, denial, fatigue, social withdrawal, depression, and anxiety.
- Trips and Falls – hearing and balance are interconnected as they share a common nerve pathway into the brain. The vestibular system that is responsible for balance is also located deep inside the ear. A great body of research has shown that the ability to hear directly affects balance, and even mild hearing loss can lead to an increased risk of trips and falls.
Myth: “Mild Hearing Loss Does Not Need Treating”
Truth: Mild hearing loss is defined by being unable to hear sounds that are quieter than 25dB. It can be easy to dismiss but must be treated because it puts the brain at risk of auditory deprivation, affects interpersonal relationships and social interactions, and increases the risk of cognitive decline, social isolation and mental health problems.
People with mild hearing loss often say that they hear well in quiet environments when they are having one-to-one conversations; however, not so well in loud environments, and nor when a person is standing some distance away from them. They also have trouble hearing high frequency sounds. The longer the hearing loss is left untreated, the more the brain loses its ability to process the sounds it is no longer hearing. Hearing aids treat hearing loss by re-training the brain to hear certain sounds again and can even reverse early-onset brain atrophy. Mild hearing loss is the easiest to treat because the brain is less likely to have lost the ability to process sound. If mild hearing loss is neglected, however, and advances to moderate or severe, it becomes much more difficult to treat.
Myth: “Hearing Loss is Inevitable and Cannot be Prevented”
Truth: Hearing tests are not part of routine check-ups which is why hearing loss is not treated as seriously as it should be. It also explains why so many people are unsure about what to do when they experience hearing loss. People need to know, however, that prevention is always better than cure.
While it’s true that hearing loss is somewhat inevitable - everybody’s hearing will change in one way or another across the course of their lives - people can reduce the rate at which it is deteriorating. Fortunately, there are various ways to prevent hearing loss:
- Minimise Exposure to Loud Noise – either limit or avoid exposure to noise that is louder than 85dB. If this is not possible, be sure to use hearing protection.
- Quit Smoking – Various studies have proven that exposure to cigarette smoke, whether directly, second-hand, or in utero, affects hearing health. Nicotine and carbon monoxide lower oxygen levels in the blood and constrict blood vessels all over the body including those in the inner ear. Smokers have a 70% greater chance of developing hearing loss than non-smokers.
- Eat Foods High in Certain Vitamins and Minerals – vitamins like B12, potassium and magnesium are vital for maintaining good hearing health. Iron-deficiency anaemia is also linked to hearing loss, so it is important to include iron in your diet.
- Keep Diabetes Under Control – diabetes can damage the cells in your inner ears. Research has shown that people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop hearing loss than people who don’t.
- Prioritise Dental Hygiene - tooth decay and gum disease are caused by pathogenic bacteria which can enter the bloodstream and threaten overall health. Harmful bacteria which originate in the mouth can inflame and narrow the arteries and blood vessels located in the ears and brain. Hair cells in the cochlea require healthy blood circulation, so if blood circulation is low, they may become damaged or even permanently destroyed ultimately causing hearing loss.
Scarlet Lewitt is a consultant for Hear4U.