All about hearing loss and tinnitus
Hearing loss is incredibly common - it affects one in seven of the population (about 9 million people in the UK). If you're over 50, you have a two in five chance of having hearing loss, and that rises to two in three by the age of 70. But it's definitely not 'just one of those things' and you certainly don't have to sit back and accept it. On the down side, hearing loss increases your risk of social isolation, depression and even dementia. On the up side, advances in hearing aids mean nobody but you ever needs to know. So what are you waiting for?
What are the early symptoms?
Age-related hearing loss tends to creep up on us gradually - like so many other joys of getting on a bit! That's why friends and family may notice you have a problem before you do. Your TV or radio may gradually get set to a higher and higher volume; you may think people are mumbling when they speak to you; or you may find it hard to follow a conversation if there's lot of background noise, or if people aren't looking directly at you. If any of these apply to you, it's worth booking a hearing test.
Can't I just wait until it's a real problem?
No - 'use it or lose it' is the catchphrase here! We may take hearing for granted, but it's very complicated and your brain can take a while to 'tune back in' if the processing parts haven't been used fully. The average person has hearing problems for 15 years before they seek help, yet in a recent survey of hearing aid users, almost two thirds said they wished they'd got a hearing aid sooner and nearly four in five enjoyed life more with a hearing aid. If you're worried about an older loved one's hearing, do encourage them to get help. Getting hearing loss treated has been shown to reduce the chance of dementia and may even prevent falls and hospital admissions.
How do I get my hearing tested?
You can ask your GP for a referral. In the last year, GP groups (called CCGs, or Clinical Commissioning Groups) in many parts of the country have commissioned services in the community to provide exactly the same level of service as the traditional hospital-based hearing clinic. Specsavers, for instance, have assessed and treated over 130,000 NHS patients through high street stores fully equipped to provide hearing tests and to fit and provide follow-up care for hearing aids. You can arrange the appointment time at your convenience and the waiting time is rarely more than two weeks. Part of the deal with the NHS is that they won't pressure you into buying a private hearing aid if you've been referred on the NHS.
Hearing aids in the 21st Century
Only two in five people with hearing problems wear a hearing aid - often because they remember the chunky, uncomfortable whistling hearing aids of years ago. These days the picture is very different. I often do a whole consultation with a patient sitting opposite me without realising they have a hearing aid at all - great news for them, but embarrassing for the doctor!
The revolution in hearing aids, which means they are mostly tiny (down to the size of a couple of paper clips) and more comfortable yet more effective, has been the invention of digital hearing aids. The main types sit in the outer ear, sit inside the ear canal or sit partly behind the ear. Many digital hearing aids are now available on the NHS, so put those thoughts of a huge ear trumpet well behind you.
Are tinnitus and hearing loss linked?
Tinnitus is an abnormal sound you hear that doesn't come from the outside world. It includes whistling, ringing and buzzing. About one in six people have some degree of tinnitus, but most aren't troubled by it. It can be brought on (often temporarily) by exposure to loud noises. It's occasionally caused by a condition called Ménière's disease, which causes episodes of intense dizziness, tinnitus and vertigo. Having hearing loss certainly doesn't mean you'll inevitably get tinnitus. Tinnitus can be distressing but while it can't be cured, it sometimes settles on its own and there's a lot you can do to relieve your symptoms. Contact the British Tinnitus Association (telephone 0800 018 0527) or speak to your GP. And always see your doctor if you get tinnitus in one ear only.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.