One in five people may suffer from hearing loss. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that many more are at risk of permanent hearing damage, with more than a billion students putting their hearing in danger because of unsafe listening practices.
To raise awareness about this invisible epidemic, World Hearing Day was started by the WHO in 2015. Untreated hearing problems have a gradual but far-reaching influence on someone’s social, emotional and vocational well-being. They are even associated with an increase in depression, hospitalisations and cognitive decline in older adults. In fact, the number one risk factor for dementia that can be influenced in mid-life stages is hearing loss.
With World Hearing Day on 3 March, here are three ways to take care of your hearing (and your brain).
1. Follow safe listening practices to avoid hearing loss
The old adage that prevention is better than cure is even truer in the case of hearing loss, since there is no cure. The most common form of hearing loss – sensorineural – is due to permanent damage to the delicate hearing organ and cannot be reversed.
The ubiquitous nature of personal digital technologies and their use as listening devices is posing a real risk to the hearing of young adults around the world. For example, a recent study found that one in seven children between nine and 11 years of age already has early signs of noise-induced hearing loss that may have lifelong consequences.
The WHO has recommended safe listening strategies that are simple to implement and encourage enjoyment of your listening activities in a responsible way. Firstly, keep the volume down, preferably at below 60% of the maximum, and use carefully fitted earphones and, if possible, noise-cancelling headphones. Secondly, protect your ears from loud sounds by wearing earplugs or moving away from sources of sound such as loudspeakers. Thirdly, limit your time engaged in noisy activities, including daily use of personal audio devices, and take short listening breaks.
2. Get regular hearing check-ups
Interestingly, it is often a spouse or children of persons with hearing loss who first notice a hearing problem. The first signs usually include difficulty following conversation in noisy places like restaurants and turning the TV’s volume up. Since more effort is required by persons with hearing loss in conversations and meetings, they often struggle with fatigue. Tinnitus, or a ringing sensation in the ears, is another common symptom of a hearing problem.
Audiologists are professionals dedicated to hearing care and can provide a hearing check-up if there are any concerns. As a collaborating centre of the World Health Organization, the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology has dedicated efforts to make hearing check-ups widely accessible. The national hearing test of South Africa, hearZA, was developed here in partnership with the hearX group. The free app, available on iOS and Android stores, gives a quick two-minute hearing screening test. If a hearing problem is identified users can connect directly with the nearest audiologist. This year UP is supporting World Hearing Day by launching a self-test kiosk in the library to allow students and staff to check their own hearing regularly.
3. Get treated as soon as possible
When it comes to doing something about a hearing problem, sooner is always better than later. Increasingly, research is pointing to the close link between hearing and brain health, suggesting that the more hearing you have the better it is for your brain. Fortunately, we live in a day and age where advances in technology are not only making hearing aids incredibly small but also incredibly powerful to restore much of the lost hearing sensitivity. With the right support, hearing aids can ensure persons with hearing loss don’t have to miss out.
The 2020 World Hearing Day theme is: Hearing for life. Don’t let hearing loss limit you. Because it doesn't have to.
*De Wet Swanepoel is Professor in Audiology at the University of Pretoria, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Audiology, and co-founder of the hearX group. His work capitalises on information and communication technologies to explore, develop and evaluate innovative solutions and service-delivery models to improve ear and hearing care.
Image credit: University of Pretoria