How to Care for Your Ears
In the UK, people are living longer than ever before. Government statistics reveal that 10 million people in the country are over 65 years old; within 20 years there will be over five million more. By the year 2050 that number will have grown to around 19 million: almost double the figure it is now.
A longer lifespan is a positive. However, the longer we live the more likely the chances that we risk developing certain health conditions, such as diabetes, eyesight problems - and hearing. There are more than ten million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss - which equates to around one sixth of the nation's population - and, as with the number of people aged 65 or over, that number is only heading in one direction. By 2013 there will be 14.5 million people with hearing loss in the UK.
Hearing is known to deteriorate over time. More than 40% of people over the age of 50 have some degree of hearing loss, and more than 70% of people over the age of 70 are affected. As we age, our chances of experiencing hearing loss increases. This online guide will look at the issues in more depth, and advise further on how to care for your ears.
The types of hearing loss
There are four most commonly known causes types of hearing loss.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
Unfortunately, hearing loss is very often a natural consequence of the ageing process. By the age of 65, one in three people in the UK will have some form of hearing loss; by 75 that becomes one in two. What occurs, over time, is that we lose our ability to hear softer and high-pitched sounds. It can go unnoticed because this happens gradually.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Every sound we hear has to make its way to the inner ear - but the journey can be blocked by issues in the other two sections of the ear, the outer and middle parts. This problem could be a build-up of wax or fluid, or something more serious, such as a perforated eardrum.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
If the sensory cells or nerve fibres in the inner ear become damaged they are less able to channel sounds through to the brain. In most cases, sensorineural hearing loss is permanent.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Regular exposure to loud noise can seriously harm our ability to hear. What is called 'gradual and increasing loss' can occur when people listen to high-volume music - either through an MP3 player or by attending gigs and nightclubs frequently. There is another type of noise-induced hearing loss; 'acoustic trauma' can result when a person is standing close to an explosion or abnormally loud noise. This can result in immediate hearing loss.
How does the ear work?
The human ear has three main elements, all of which need to be kept healthy in order for it to function correctly.
The Outer Ear picks up sound vibrations in the concha (1) and passes these along the ear canal (2).
The sounds vibrate the ear drum (3), which in turn move the tiny bones (4) located in the Middle Ear.
This movement transmits vibrations to the cochlea (5) in the Inner Ear where they are received by fragile microscopic hair cells which convert the vibrations into nerve impulses for onward transmission by the auditory nerve (6) to the brain for recognition.
The cochlea is a crucial part of the Inner Ear. It has more than 15,000 microscopic hair cells that pick up sounds and activate the nerves that send these brains to the sound - in 90% of hearing loss cases, it is damage to these cells which has caused the problem.
Taking sensible precautions can help to protect your ears. Primarily, these apply to managing the environment we are in - if you're in a situation where you are exposed to noise, assess the level of the volume and the amount of time you are susceptible to it.
The volume of noise can be measured in decibels, and a chart detailing levels associated with typical activities can be a useful guide when managing exposure.
The decibel levels range from 40 dB - a quiet room, the humming of a fridge - right up to 140 dB, which puts a person in danger of immediate hearing damage. This level of noise is akin to a gunshot, or a jet engine at take-off. In between there are nine other settings and some of them may surprise; 115 dB carries a risk of hearing damage if someone is subject to it for 15 minutes. A baby's crying has been calculated at 115 dB.
When encountering a noisy environment there are really two options to take. The first is to avoid it - not always easy, if your job exposes you to that risk - and the second is to wear hearing protection. Putting your fingers in your ear is a start, though no more than a temporary, emergency measure.
Ear defenders provide a genuine layer of protection. These come in the form of over-the-ear defenders which enclose the ear completely, or custom-made versions. At Hidden Hearing, we have a range of products to suit specific activities - including electronic noise suppressors for shooting and models developed for musicians.
Spotting the signs
Hearing loss can be gradual. It can be hard to detect it in yourself and difficult to discuss with a family member if you have noticed a change in their behaviour. The realisation that you might be suffering hearing loss can be slow to register because the ear can process some types of sound more easily than others. High pitched consonants can be missed.
Before taking the next steps, make a quick assessment of your situation by asking some of these questions:
Are you straining to hear people talk?
Do you struggle to hold a conversation when in a busy environment, like a restaurant?
Do you turn the volume on the TV up to increasingly high levels?
Do you mishear what people are saying?
Are you often asking people to repeat themselves?
Do you find loud noises stressful?
If you answer yes to all or any of these, it's probably time to seek help.
The first step in seeking help is to have your hearing tested by an Hearing Aid Audiologist. A Hidden Hearing assessment is free and only takes around an hour.
It involves a few simple tests which are designed to diagnose the type and level of hearing loss. Some of our hearing centres have the facilities to use a Video Otoscope, which enables our experts to see deep inside the ear and examine the condition of your ear drum. An audiometric test can reveal how well you hear different frequencies.
Fitting hearing aids
If it is determined that you could benefit from the use of hearing aids, there is a range of options to suit personal preference, problem and lifestyle. There will be physical matters to consider, which include ear anatomy - the size and shape of the ear canal can dictate which device is needed - and ear wax. Everyone has ear wax, but if you tend to have a build-up of this in your ears, some types of device will be less effective.
Some devices hide inside the ear, virtually invisible to other people. Some fit behind the ear and can be camouflaged to match the colour of skin or hair, and others come in the form of spectacles. A high performance digital chip is hidden inside the frame.
A hearing aid can usually be the best way to guarantee on going care of your ears and ensure your quality of life continues. Hearing is too precious to neglect, so look after the health of your ears.