Hearing loss is very common. It’s the second most common medical problem after joint and muscle pains in people aged between 60-70 years. That makes hearing loss more common than asthma, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. If left unmanaged it can have significant physical and mental health consequences and even bring on dementia.

Despite being so common, it is often not talked about because it causes embarrassment in social settings. People who don’t hear well, tend to avoid social gatherings. Initially they might avoid events that take place in busy, noisy places but it eventually results in a person eventually choosing to not go out and just stay home, often alone. Hearing loss usually develops gradually which means people with hearing loss will sometimes not be as aware of this as those around them. Friends and family might complain that they need to repeat themselves or that they have been misheard. If this is happening to you, see your GP and if you are concerned about a loved one, try talking to them about this in a sensitive manner because depression or low mood often develops from the isolation caused from hearing loss.

Key points about hearing loss

  • Hearing loss is part of the aging process affecting nearly 60% of over 60s, 70% of over 70s and 80% of over 80s.
  • If elderly, depressed and alone – check the hearing.
  • Exposure to excessive noise is the most common cause of all premature hearing loss (around 37%) – we call this ‘noise induced hearing loss’.
  • Loud noise can cause irreversible hearing loss.
  • Illness, exposure to some chemicals, drugs and accidents can cause hearing loss.
  • Listening to music through headphones at 94dB for one hour can start to impact your hearing.
  • A rock concert at 100 dB can damage your hearing in just 15 minutes and louder sounds such as aeroplanes which are at 110 dB can cause damage in just 1 minute.
  • Vacuuming and other household noises although loud, are mostly at around 65 decibels and will not harm your hearing.
  • If your parents had declining hearing in their older years, the likelihood you will also is higher.

Early signs of hearing loss

If you live with someone who needs to turn the volume of the TV up all the time regardless of whether you tell them it’s too loud, be suspicious of hearing loss. They might be missing bits of conversation, or just don’t get jokes and strain to listen in cafes and noisy environments. When you or your loved one starts to avoid social gatherings because it’s just ‘getting too hard’ to hear anything or ‘have a meaningful conversation’ when there are groups of people, this is an early sign of hearing loss. If you identify with these situations, regardless of your age, have a hearing assessment. This can make all the difference between becoming increasingly frustrated, withdrawing from social events where there are crowds and the embarrassment you might feel when you ask for things to be repeated. Check out Hearing Australia website which is the government funded hearing services for an assessment if concerned. Consider being fitted for hearing aids if hearing loss is having an impact on your ability to enjoy social outings and conversation with regular background noise, such as the TV.

Sudden loss of hearing in one ear is an urgent matter

Sudden loss of hearing especially if associated with tinnitus or ringing in that ear, needs urgent medical attention. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the result of accumulated ear wax. Your GP will examine your ear canals and recommend appropriate treatments or even remove the wax plug. Do not try to do this yourself. Avoid using over the counter ear drops, wax removers, unless your doctor has examined your ears. Sometimes it can be due to a small tumour on the nerve dedicated to hearing called an acoustic neuroma. This requires an MRI or a CT scan to diagnose it.

Hearing health

  • Avoid loud noises and especially prolonged and repeated exposures to loud noises. Be more aware of the sounds you are listening to and for how long. This can reduce your risk of ‘noise induced hearing loss’.
  • Avoid loud noises from early on in life because the effects can be cumulative.
  • Wear ear protectors (ear plugs, earmuffs) to decrease the sound when using noisy machinery or if planning on attending a rock concert (many of the favourite old rock bands are doing tours again and are attracting older crowds).
  • Leaving an event with loud music with ringing in your ears is a sign that damage has occurred. Take the ringing in the ears as a serious warning.
  • To look at the loudness of noise and its potential for harm, Decibel X is available on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

Dementia and hearing

Mild hearing loss is associated with twice the risk of dementia and severe hearing loss is five times more likely to be related to the development and progression of dementia. This might come as a surprise that age related hearing loss can accelerate dementia, however the lack of interaction, lack of stimulation and the mood decline that follow from these, bring on a sense of isolation in people. This all has a strong relationship with poor memory and dementia. It’s important to encourage your elderly loved ones to wear their hearing aids even if they find them strange to start with. Hearing well again after having gradually lost connection with the outside world, can be tiring for some and even annoying in the beginning. Be patient with them and encourage them to wear their hearing aids as frequently as possible.

Safe ear cleaning

For the most part, ears are self-cleaning and the protective wax that is produced, makes its way out of the canal to the outer ear. Ear wax accumulates in some people, forming hard dry plugs which in turn cause hearing decline – a visit to your GP can solve this problem promptly. Do not use cotton tips inside the canal. Do not put objects in your ear canal. You can use a cloth to wipe the outside of your ear canal at best. Never insert objects into the canal. Self-syringing ears is not advised. You can damage your ear drum if too much pressure is used and if the water temperature is not right, it can cause profound dizziness.

Balance or dizziness problems

Dizziness that occurs with ringing in the ears and hearing loss is sometimes due to a condition called Meniere’s disease which usually runs in families. In most cases it affects both ears.

If it is one sided and sudden, this may also be the hallmark of a growth on your acoustic nerve (acoustic neuroma) and should be seen by your GP with a possible referral to an otolaryngologist, also called ENT (ear nose and throat) surgeon.

Dizziness and balance disturbance are referred to broadly as ‘vertigo’ and can occur out of the blue for no apparent reason. Sometimes it’s brought on by a virus, sometimes it’s due to medication and sometimes there is no obvious cause. A high intake of salt, caffeine and alcohol can make symptoms worse. Your GP might start you on a trial of anti-dizziness medication and if this isn’t helpful, a referral is warranted. Some cases are referred to as ‘vestibular migraine’ even though there is no headache, which makes the term quite confusing. The dizzy spells can be so severe that walking and balance are affected. It is dangerous to drive during these episodes.

Loss of balance or dizziness needs to be explored for possible stroke or blood flow problems to the back of the brain (cerebellum) especially if the dizziness is worse when hanging clothes on the clothesline or tilting the head backwards.

Lifestyle advice for better ears

  • See your GP if you suspect hearing loss.
  • An annual hearing check is recommended after the age of 65 years.
  • Be aware of noise levels and potential damage from loud noise exposure.
  • Protect your hearing – use the Apps on your phone or watch.
  • Get fitted for hearing aids if there is hearing loss that is affecting your ability to interact and enjoy life and conversation with people.
  • Hearing loss can bring on depression and dementia.


Hearing Australia

Hearing Australia – assessing loudness of noise

Dementia Australia