Talking to our families over dinner, chatting to a friend on the phone, listening to the news on the radio, asking the shop assistant for help or a stranger on the street for directions are all things we do without thinking about them. But what if you didn’t quite understand what others were saying, what if the world around you was becoming more and more silent every day?
For many this isn’t a hypothetical scenario and if you are aged 55 plus you may already be experiencing gradual hearing loss, if you are over 65 there is even a 50/50 chance that you already need a hearing aid.
There are over half a million over 65 year-olds in Ireland, and this figure is continually rising, and 50% or more of them suffer from loss of hearing, some more than others.
But while 91% of people have their eyes tested on a regular basis throughout their lives, only 9% have their hearing checked, so a recent study by Hidden Hearing. The result of this neglect is that, on average, people get a hearing aid fitted about ten years too late.
“Testing early is important, as that way we can establish a baseline”, explains audiologist Leona Kane from MacNally Hearing, “hearing loss happens so gradually that it becomes the norm. But if we have a baseline we can see what the person used to be able to hear and fit them with a starter hearing aid early on.”
Many associate hearing loss with aging, so a big reason, for many, to not have their ears tested is vanity, believing that if they need help hearing that makes them old. This stigma however isn’t attached to glasses, most people just expect that they need some support to read, watch T.V and drive, if not at a young age, most likely as they grow older. But the loss of hearing has a much higher impact on individuals than loss of sight actually does.
“We are very neglectful of our hearing,” Leona Kane points out “and we really should be more proactive about it.”
When you can’t hear, follow a conversation or hear something or someone approaching this can lead, and does in many cases, to isolation, loss of communication and even anxiety. People start staying home more, trying to take part in everyday life becomes hard work and stressful, tiring them out as they strain to follow what people around them are saying, so they avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable.
Brendan Lennon from DeafHear is involved in several research projects and says that: ”People start believing others are mumbling as they lose the ability to hear sound such as ‘S’ or ‘K’, high frequency sounds that help us distinguish words from each other. On the other side, people think their parents, grandparents, and friends are changing their personalities, become irritable and grouchy, always giving out, asking them to speak up, speak clearly, turning the T.V up too loud and shouting at them.”
This combination of being unable to follow conversations and not being able to partake in them leads to isolation, and this in turn can even lead to other, bigger issues.
If you can’t hear your brain begins to forget how to process certain sounds, so when you do eventually get a hearing aid the aftercare is vital. No one expects to get out up and walk if they haven’t in years, you need help and rehabilitation to regain your strength and practice your muscles. Hearing works in a similar way; you need to train your brain to hear different sounds.
Audiologist Dolores Madden from Hidden Hearing explains: “All patients should have a custom build hearing aid, as people need individual testing and aftercare. So once we establish what is needed, we can accompany the on their rehabilitation journey. But the first step is testing!”
Of course there are costs involved, but the HSE does give up to €500 per ear if your PRSN enables you and your spouse to be part of the Treatment Benefit Scheme. This means if you have enough social insurance contributions this can help cover the cost of a hearing aid.
And as Dolores Madden says, “Can you put a price on hearing? After all it is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Just like Suduko and crosswords train your mind and keep it agile and fit, so does hearing. Listening to a programme and processing new information helps your brain stay young, being able to take part in discussions helps your brain stay agile, so when you can’t hear and you forgo all these vital experiences your brain can slow down, in the worse cases even encourage dementia to set in earlier.
A large-scale clinical research project in Sweden discovered that the loss of hearing is the second largest medical condition that affects people’s lives. They found that the personality changes and psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, were directly linked to hearing loss.
Early testing seems to be the only way forward. So while the HSE did start a neo-natal screening programme at the beginning of 2014, it is 20 years behind most other European countries, and it does not target the age group loss of hearing most frequently concerns.
So while hearing loss may not be avoidable, testing early and regularly can ensure that you get the right aftercare.