This week we have a guest article from Melanie Lewis who is a trained hearing aid audiologist. She works for hearing direct, the UK’s leading vendor of deaf and hard of hearing assistive Listening Devices.

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There are over 10 million people suffering some form of hearing impairment in the UK; with the largest number affecting those over the age of 65. In this group, the primary cause of hearing loss is directly linked to natural aging, changes that also see reciprocal links with further sensory deterioration, such as vision. As the aging popular in the UK is projected to grow, it follows that so too are cases of age related hearing loss. Managing hearing loss is not only essential to retain one’s ability to ‘connect’ with others, but, increasingly, studies suggest a means of moderating cognitive decline and dementia.

How We Hear and What ‘Goes Wrong’

Hearing is a complex process which involves the capturing and funneling of sound vibration (through the outer ear); transfer across the ossicular chain (in the middle ear), to the inner ear, where tiny microscopic hair cells/ receptors convert the physical vibrations into electrical information.  The transfer of these electrical impulses, by means of the hearing nerve to the brain, is recognized as ‘sound’

As the body ages, the number of hair cells in the inner ear, will naturally decline, leading to hearing loss. The body is unable to regenerate or ‘re-grow’ new hair cells, so the resultant hearing loss is irreversible.  Whilst the condition cannot be cured, there are options in place to limit its effect.

Unmanaged Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

Individuals who suffer from ‘unmanaged’ hearing loss have to expend tremendous effort and concentration in conducting a simple conversation. This effort can result, over time, in feelings of frustration and even physical exhaustion. It is perhaps inevitable that the culmination of frustration, bound with the anxiety of miscommunication, sees many individual’s recoil from social interaction altogether.

Leading research has raised the theory that the effects of hearing loss alongside corollary links, such as stress and social isolation, may increase the risk of depression and cognitive decline.  Not only are the hard of hearing at a higher risk of experiencing social isolation due to reduced communication with their immediate surroundings but perhaps, more susceptible to conditions such as dementia.

Symptoms of Age Related Hearing Loss

Decline in hearing ability will vary between individuals and additional factors, such as exposure to harmful noise, hereditary links, and even lifestyle choices, such as smoking, may all be contributing factors to possible hearing loss. Common sign that individuals, their families and caregivers should pay attention to include:

•    Difficulty hearing in a noisy room
•    Perception that other people are ‘mumbling’
•    Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
•    Perception that certain sounds seem overly loud
•    Problems distinguishing certain sounds such as “s” or “th”
•    More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices
•    Tinnitus – the perception of a ringing/rushing/buzzing sound ‘may’ indicate associative  loss.

Hearing Loss Management

Whilst age-related hearing loss cannot be cured, the social and psychological constraints may be lessened by access to various technologies and lifestyle changes.  The first step in hearing rehabilitation, however, must be in seeking the relevant medical referral.  Generally speaking, an initial consultation with a GP should rule out temporary causes of hearing loss, such as earwax blockage as well as re-directing (where appropriate) individuals for a full diagnostic assessment. Access to a hearing test is often a result of a direct referral from one’s GP, via the hospital or local NHS trust but may also be conducted (privately) at a local hearing centre.

For most age-related losses intervention, in the form of hearing aid provision, is a good option. Whilst hearing aids cannot replace lost or damaged hair cells, stimulation of the remaining hair cells can afford significant improvement in auditory discrimination.  Avenues for sourcing hearing provision again, may be accessed via the NHS (subject to waiting times) or privately, with digital options starting from £99.

Alongside the use of hearing aids, there are numerous options in the form of ALD’s (assistive Listening Devices), these include, but are not limited to, amplified alerting devices from doorbells to alarm clocks, telephone systems with varying levels of amplification and wireless TV listeners. Many audio options can be used as standalone systems or alongside hearing aids.

Family and caregivers can help tremendously in promoting access to dialogue. Effective communication requires the combined effort of both speaker and listener and use of certain hearing tactics can help to achieve this goal. Examples of effective communication include, facing the person you are speaking to, not only for basic lip reading but to also to ensure that sound information is not misdirected. Proximity to the person you are speaking to is also important – it is worth noting that a sound decreases by 50% as the distance is doubled; ensuring the room in which the conversation takes place is well lit and that one’s voice remains steady, shouting can distort the natural rhythm of speech and actually make it more difficult to ‘hear’.

The use of hearing tactics alongside different technologies will certainly not cure hearing loss but should go a long way towards preserving the quality of one’s auditory life.