The impacts of hearing loss
It’s easy to take our sense of hearing for granted – most of us expect to hear our friend call our name in a crowded room, appreciate all the details in our favourite song or understand the person on the other end of the phone. But for those with hearing loss, it’s not always so easy.
How hearing loss happens
There are three types of hearing loss – sensorineural, conductive and mixed.
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ear or to the nerves that send sound to the brain. This can happen from excessive noise, aging, certain medications and even viral infections.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when something blocks sound waves from reaching the inner ear. Blockages can include wax build-up, fluid in the middle ear, damage to the eardrum and tumors.
When you have more than one of the types (if you have wax build-up and inner-ear damage, for example), your hearing loss is considered mixed.
Signs and Symptoms
Severe hearing loss is usually obvious, but gradual hearing impairment can be subtle and take years to notice.
For instance, when we age and start to lose our hearing, the high frequencies are usually the first to go. We might have trouble understanding people with high voices or we might mix up consonant sounds such as “th” and “sh.” But often, we don’t know we’re losing our hearing until a friend or family member points it out. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 78 per cent of adults aged 60 to 79 have some form of hearing loss, and only around a quarter of them are aware.
Hearing difficulties in children are rarer, but they can cause complications if not diagnosed and treated properly. Affected children take longer to learn how to speak and can also lag behind in developing their motor skills and coordination. In their school years, children with hearing impairments can have a harder time in the classroom, and an undiagnosed hearing loss can lead teachers to believe a child may have cognitive disabilities.
Hearing loss is also associated with other hearing conditions – the two most common being tinnitus and hyperacusis.
Tinnitus is a ringing, buzzing or squealing in one or both ears that can develop along with hearing loss. Around 10 to 15 per cent of Canadians experience tinnitus, according to the Canadian Hearing Society.
Tinnitus can cause problems with focus and sleep, because the constant sound can be hard to ignore. Lack of sleep, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco smoke can make tinnitus worse. To block out tinnitus, some people use white noise generators, listen to music when they sleep or simply have a fan running in their bedroom.
Some people with hearing loss also have hyperacusis, which is an increased sensitivity to certain sounds, such as clattering dishes, alarms and people clapping. Hyperacusis presents an interesting problem, because while it’s associated with hearing loss, it actually makes some sounds seem louder.
There is no known cure for tinnitus or hyperacusis. Therapies are available, but they can be expensive and take a long time to work.
How to prevent and treat hearing loss
While conductive hearing loss can be temporary and treatable (wax build-up can be removed, for example), sensorineural loss is typically untreatable and potentially permanent.
Wearing ear protection in loud environments can help protect you from noise-related hearing loss. Ensuring you have all your vaccinations will help prevent viral infections that can damage your hearing, and avoiding certain medications can also help.
When a hearing impairment is severe enough to affect daily activities, there are several ways of dealing with it.
Hearing aids are the most traditional way to handle hearing loss. They work by amplifying sounds through a device that sits in or behind the ear. Many hearing aids are configurable to adapt to different listening situations (a noisy room versus a phone call, for example). New research from Duke University suggests that our eardrums point where our eyes are looking, which means future hearing aids may include optical sensors to amplify what we’re looking at.
Cochlear implants can work for people who can’t hear with hearing aids. Thin wires are implanted in the inner ear and are connected to a device that converts sound into electrical impulses. These impulses stimulate the auditory nerve, which then sends the impulses into the brain.
Bone-conducting hearing aids are used when you can’t hear through your ear canal (some people are born without ear canals, and in some cases they may become blocked). Implants in the skull transmit vibrations into our inner ear, where they’re picked up by the cochlea and converted into sound.
Blue Advantage savings for Blue Cross members
No matter the method, treatment options can be expensive. However, Blue Cross members and their dependents across Canada have access to savings on products and services from participating hearing providers that can help lower the cost. To see the full list, click here.