Hearing problems are often associated with the natural ageing process, but hearing loss isn’t inevitable and can be avoided if you act early. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around one third of hearing loss in adults is preventable, such as that caused by overexposure to loud noises.

While some damage is irreversible, early intervention can halt or delay hearing problems from progressing. Yet surprisingly, many adults ignore telltale signs of hearing difficulties, possibly due to busy lifestyles, fear and embarrassment, or not recognising the warning signs.

However, recently released data shows that it’s an issue we can no longer ignore. A 2017 Deloitte Access Economics report, commissioned by the Hearing Care Industry Association, found that hearing loss in Australian adults is expected to more than double from 3.6 million to 7.8 million by 2060.

How loud noises cause hearing damage
Loud noises can damage the inner part of the ear, known as the cochlea, in two ways. Mechanical destruction occurs when hair cells lose their rigidity and the sensory cells are destroyed over time; or metabolic changes can occur when sensory cells are unable to cope with prolonged, intense sound, which causes raised levels of free radicals in the ear and eventually leads to cell death.

How loud is too loud?
Well, this depends on the intensity and duration of sound exposure. According to another WHO report, the highest safe exposure level is 85 decibels (dB) for a maximum of eight hours — which is the equivalent of the sound of a lawnmower for an entire day. The US-based CDC recommends, on a daily basis, no longer than 15 minutes of exposure to sounds at 100 dB (hairdryers, subway trains, car horn at five metres), four minutes at 105 dB (music from headphones at maximum volume, chainsaw), and only 28 seconds per day at loud concerts (115 dB).

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Sounds at 85dB for a maximum of eight hours is considered a safe exposure

The good news is that there are ways to halt or delay hearing loss from progressing regardless of age.

5 common mistakes and how to avoid them

1. Ignoring warning signs
What may seem like a mild or isolated hearing issue can gradually worsen and sneak up on you before you know it. That’s why it’s important to learn how to recognise common warning signs and catch issues early on.

Telltale signs include:

  • Difficulty hearing a conversation in a crowded room
  • Ringing in the ears, known as ‘tinnitus’
  • Speech that sounds increasingly muffled
  • Turning up the TV or radio more than usual, especially when those around you complain the volume is too high
  • Hearing differences between men and women’s voices — if you find it easier to understand men’s voices it could signal a problem with the upper registers of your hearing

2. Not taking noise breaks or using earplugs
Even if you can’t avoid certain noisy situations, small measures such as taking listening breaks or wearing earplugs can make all the difference when it comes to reducing your risk over time. For every hour exposed to loud noises, spend 10 minutes in a quieter environment.

Other noise-reducing strategies include using noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds to avoid turning up your device to harmful levels, and limiting headphone use to one hour per day.

3. Staying too close to the noise source
It may seem obvious but simply moving a few metres away from the source of noise can reduce the intensity of the sound and its effect on the cochlea. At a concert or noisy venue, move to the back, or take frequent breaks away from the loudspeaker or stage.

In general, if someone standing at arm’s length or one metre away has to raise their voice to be heard, the sound is too loud.

4. Delaying medical advice
If you notice changes in your hearing, don’t ignore the signs. Visit your GP, who can investigate any undiagnosed or underlying issues such as build up of earwax, infection, recent trauma or injury, or a side effect from some medications.

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Untreated hearing loss can lead to a number of health and wellbeing issues

For a full hearing assessment, make an appointment with an audiologist who will assess your hearing ability. You can also take a free online hearing test, available on the Blamey Saunders hears website.

5. Delaying treatment
On average, it takes people seven to 10 years from the time they experience hearing loss to getting fitted with a hearing device. Untreated hearing loss can lead to a range of issues including:

  • Fatigue and embarrassment
  • Irritability and anger
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Personal safety problems
  • Impaired memory and learning ability
  • Reduced psychological health

Some research has also found a link between hearing loss and serious health conditions such as depression, dementia, and various mental health disorders.

People with hearing loss also report higher levels of dissatisfaction when it comes to their financial situations, relationships with family and friends, and their sense of community. Is it time you had your hearing checked?

When was the last time you had your hearing checked?

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