How your hearing changes as you age

How your hearing changes as you age

Do you have trouble understanding what people are saying in a noisy place? Do you think everyone is mumbling? Hearing loss may the culprit—and it can take a toll on your wellbeing. Help is available!

Aging is the number one cause of hearing loss

So says the Canadian Hearing Society, which also reports that the incidence of hearing loss is poised to climb dramatically as our population ages.

“The exact number of people living with hearing loss in Canada is difficult to track since many people don’t self-identify with their hearing loss,” says Rex Banks, the society’s director of audiology.

According to a 2012-2015 Statistics Canada survey, 40% of Canadians aged 20-79 have at least some hearing loss. For Canadians aged 60 to 79, that number jumps to 78%. Most Canadians with measured hearing loss were not aware they had any hearing problems until they were diagnosed.

As with declining optical and oral health, hearing loss can take a physical, psychological and social toll. Those who have difficulty hearing may feel embarrassed or dis-trustful of others. They may withdraw, making loneliness and depression more likely. The hard, sustained concentration required to hear what people are saying can lead to headaches, elevated blood pressure and stress. Studies have even tied hearing loss to heart and kidney disease, arthritis, and dementia.

“Adults with age-related hearing loss don’t usually acknowledge their hearing loss; they’re more likely to view it an unavoidable sign of aging,” says Banks. “Often it’s family or friends who notice a change in a loved one’s hearing.”

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from hearing loss, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to an audiologist for a hearing test and advice on how to manage hearing loss. The Canadian Hearing Society recommends you get a hearing test every two years.

Ear problems, A-Z

How your hearing changes as you age 1

Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, generally begins in the higher frequencies and then the lower frequencies. It progresses slowly, and tends to affect both ears equally. Causes include changes to the inner, middle and outer ear, and the auditory nerve. Exposure to loud noise, certain illnesses and medications, head injuries and infections, and high blood pressure can also play a part. Our susceptibility to hearing loss is hereditary.

Early signs of hearing loss include a growing inability to understand what people are saying in a noisy place, difficulty hearing on the phone, or thinking that everyone is mumbling.

Tinnitus, which also becomes more common with age, is a ringing, hissing or roaring in the ears. It’s caused by exposure to loud noises and certain medications, and can ride side-car to any other type of hearing loss.

Untreated ear infections can lead to hearing loss; so can earwax buildup and damaged eardrums. These can be treated.

How your hearing changes as you age 2

Protect your hearing

While short-term exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss, so can long-term exposure to noises that might not strike you as that loud at all. Sounds louder than 85 dB (decibels) can lead to hearing loss:

  • Whispering: 30 dB
  • Normal conversation: 60 dB
  • Noisy restaurant or heavy traffic in the city: 85 dB
  • Motorcycle: 95 dB
  • Movie theatre: up to 117 dB
  • Listening to music with headphones: 105-120 dB if the volume is cranked up; earbuds can add 6-9 dB to the volume
  • Ambulance siren or airplane taking off: 120 dB

Wear ear plugs or ear muffs if you’re exposed to sounds louder than 85 dB. Listen to 60 per cent of the maximum volume on your MP3 player for no more than 60 minutes per day—and be careful not to crank the volume when you’re in noisy surroundings.


How your hearing changes as you age 3

Listen up!
Facts about hearing aids and implants

Hearing aids amplify sound, restoring some of what hearing loss has taken away. The best of today’s hearing aids are small, sleek and smart. There’s even evidence that hearing assistance such as hearing aids can improve the lives of people living with significant dementia.

Cochlear implants can help those who won’t benefit from a hearing aid because of inner ear damage. While they don’t amplify incoming sounds, they make it easier to understand the sounds by converting them to electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

Assisted listening devices such as special alarms, teletypewriters and closed captioning can also help the hard of hearing remain connected with the world outside their ears.

How to support someone with hearing loss

How your hearing changes as you age 4

Stay sympathetic

While it is very frustrating to deal with seniors with hearing loss, it is even more frustrating for them. Don’t ever respond “Never mind, it’s not important.” It only makes the person feel that he or she is not important enough to include.

Be patient

People who suffer from hearing loss wait 5-7 years before they do anything. Your loving support may speed up that process a bit, but if at any point you feel frustrated, remind yourself that this is a difficult and lengthy process.

Show understanding

Studies have linked hearing loss in seniors to feelings of stress, tension, depression, social isolation, irritability, negativity and anger. Don’t let their attitude get you down. Try to understand the difficult situation they must live with every day.

Be respectful

Speak openly and naturally, and do not speak on the senior’s behalf. Ask questions clearly or rephrase conversation so he or she may speak for himself or herself.

Don’t be too helpful

Do not act as “ears” for the senior. While you think that you’re helping out a loved one, it builds a relationship of co-dependence that can hurt him or her over time.

When you speak to someone with hearing loss:

  • Minimize or eliminate background noise.
  • Enunciate well, and don’t distort speech, mumble, or lower your voice at the end of a sentence.
  • Use hands and facial expressions when you speak.
  • Speak more loudly—but never yell. Shouting distorts words.
  • Rephrase your communication. Some seniors experience a type of hearing loss where certain sounds are difficult to hear, such as the “shhh” sound.


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