Hearing loss: are you at risk?

One-third of Canadians over 65 have hearing loss. But it's not just a problem for seniors – younger people can be affected too. In fact, 10% of all Canadians have some type of hearing loss.

Could you be at risk for hearing loss? Here are some of the most common causes:

Noise exposure: Noise (short or longer-term exposure to loud noise) damages the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. These cells translate sound vibrations into nerve signals so that your brain will recognize and "hear" the sounds. Noise-related damage is irreversible. Read "protect your hearing" to find out more about noise-related hearing loss and how to reduce your risk.

Aging: Although people of all ages can be affected by hearing loss, the risk increases with age. The cause of age-related hearing loss is not always clear: sometimes it's related to a lifetime of noise exposure, while other times a genetic component is involved.

Infections or injuries: Ear infections can lead to hearing loss if not treated, because they can damage the eardrum, the bones in the middle ear (which transmit sound to the inner ear), or the nerves responsible for hearing. Head injuries or trauma to the ear can damage the eardrum (small tears can heal on their own) or the bones of the middle ear, leading to hearing loss.

Other: Other possible causes of hearing loss include Ménière's disease (a condition that damages the inner ear, leading to hearing loss and vertigo attacks), certain medications (such as antibiotics and cancer treatments), earwax buildups, congenital conditions, prenatal conditions (such as fetal alcohol syndrome), family history, and certain tumours (such as those that grow on the nerves responsible for hearing).

Concerned that you may be at risk? Talk to your doctor about booking a hearing test, and read "Protect your hearing" to find out how you can prevent some common causes of hearing loss.

Protect your hearing

Hearing loss doesn't have to be an unavoidable part of aging. You can protect yourself from some of the common causes of hearing loss. Here's how:

Watch your decibels!
Short-term exposure to loud noises, such as explosions, fireworks, or jet engines can cause hearing loss. But so can longer-term exposure to noises that aren't so loud. Even listening to your MP3 player too loud or too long can damage your hearing.

The loudness of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). Sounds that are louder than 85 dB can cause hearing loss. The higher the decibels, the shorter the amount of time you can be exposed to the sound before hearing loss occurs. For example, 8 hours at 85 dB causes as much damage as 4 hours at 88 dB, 2 hours at 91 dB, or just 15 minutes at 100 dB. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends ear protection for people exposed to sounds of 85 dB or higher. Otherwise, you risk permanent hearing loss.

Some of your daily activities may be noisier than you think! Here are the decibel ratings of some common sounds:

  • firecracker: 150 dB
  • ambulance siren or airplane taking off: 120 dB
  • nightclub: 120 dB
  • movie theatre: up to 117 dB
  • rock concert: 110-125 dB
  • listening to music with headphones: 105-120 dB if the volume is cranked up to the maximum setting (earbuds, such as those found with popular music-listening devices like MP3 and CD players, can add 6-9 dB to the volume)
  • motorcycle: 95 dB
  • noisy restaurant or heavy traffic in the city: 85 dB
  • riding in a car: 70 dB
  • normal conversation: 60 dB
  • fridge humming: 40 dB
  • whispering: 30 dB

Here's how to protect yourself from noise-related hearing loss:

  • Wear ear protection (ear plugs or ear muffs) if you'll be exposed to sounds over 85 dB. Generally, a sound is too loud if you can't hear a person talking 1 metre (3 feet) away.
  • If your workplace is noisy, wear the recommended ear protection all the time! If you have questions about ear protection on the job, contact the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
  • Follow the 60-60 rule for your personal music device (such as your MP3 or CD player): listen at 60% of the maximum volume for up to 60 minutes per day. Any more than this can lead to permanent hearing loss. And be careful you don't turn up the sound too high when you're in noisy surroundings, such as public transit.

Check it out!
Some medical conditions, such as ear infections, can lead to hearing loss if not treated. And other causes of hearing loss, such as earwax and damaged eardrums, can be treated to improve hearing. Have regular medical check-ups to find health conditions and nip them in the bud. The Canadian Hearing Society recommends a hearing test every 2 years, or more often if you have concerns about your hearing.

Watch out for the "what"?
Keep an ear out for the early signs of hearing loss. Read "Could you be losing your hearing?" to learn what to listen for. If you notice these signs, talk to your doctor or audiologist about having a hearing test. Getting help early can stop some types of hearing loss from getting worse and help you cope with others.

Could you be losing your hearing?

Sometimes, the early signs of hearing loss can be easy to miss. Many people don't realize that they've slowly been adjusting to a worsening hearing loss.

Could you be losing your hearing? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do people often tell you you're speaking too loud?
  • Does everyone seem to be mumbling?
  • Do you often ask people to repeat words?
  • Have you been misunderstanding what people are saying?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in crowded or noisy places, such as a busy restaurant?
  • Do you tend to prefer one ear over the other when listening?
  • Are you watching a person's lips or face closely as they're speaking to you?
  • Are you turning up the TV, stereo, or radio louder than you used to?
  • Do others complain that you've turned up the TV, stereo, or radio too loud?
  • Do you have trouble hearing what people are saying on the phone?
  • Are you straining to hear things?
  • Do you find very low and very high sounds harder to hear?
  • Have you been less social lately?
  • Can you hear buzzing or ringing in your ears?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, talk to your doctor about having your hearing tested. Getting help early can help you reduce your risk of some types of hearing damage and cope with the damage that has already happened.

Help for the hearing impaired

Suffering from hearing loss? You're not alone, and there are many ways to cope.

Hearing aids
Many people with hearing loss can benefit from a hearing aid. These devices sit behind or in your ear and amplify incoming sounds so you can hear them. But more than 80% of people who need hearing aids don't get them. Contact your doctor or audiologist to find out how to get access to a hearing aid that's right for you and fitted properly. A wide variety of hearing aids exists. If you're not happy with your current hearing aid, speak up. Another model may be the one for you.

Cochlear implants
People who can't benefit from a hearing aid, such as those with inner ear damage, may find a cochlear implant helpful. A cochlear implant is surgically inserted into your ear, with another part implanted underneath the skin behind your ear. Unlike a hearing aid, which simply amplifies incoming sounds, a cochlear implant helps a person understand the sounds around them. It picks up sounds, processes them, and converts them into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain. While they don't bring back normal hearing, they can help a person understand the sounds around them and make it easier to communicate.

Other devices

  • Special alarms: If you have a hard time hearing the phone or doorbell ring, consider getting a model with a light that flashes or vibrates when it rings. People who still have some hearing left can buy an amplifier to make the phone or doorbell louder.
  • Instant messaging: Instead of talking over the phone, try using text messages or instant messaging on your cellphone.
  • TTY (teletypewriter): This handy machine connects your phone to a keyboard and screen so you can type and view messages coming from your phone line. People who don't have a TTY machine can use a service called Bell Relay.
  • Closed captioning: This feature, built into all TVs made after 1993, can display the words that are being spoken on TV at the bottom of the TV screen.

Other communication tips
If you're hard of hearing, you're probably used to feeling left out of a conversation. But it doesn't have to be this way! Here are a few tips to make it easier:

  • Choose a good location for your conversation: avoid noisy, crowded areas and find a well-lit area.
  • Watch the person's facial expression and body language – these can give you clues about what they're saying. Learn lip-reading to enhance your ability to understand people's speech.
  • If you don't understand, ask them to repeat themselves.
  • Communication is a two-way street: tell the person you're talking to about your hearing loss, and what they can do to help you understand (see below).
  • Sign language can also help you communicate with others who know how to use the language.

If you're talking to someone who's hard of hearing, there are a few things you can do to help them understand:

  • Before you speak, make sure you have the person's attention.
  • When you speak, be sure you're facing the person and your facial features can be clearly seen.
  • Speak clearly and not too fast.
  • Don't shout – this just distorts the sound.
  • Give cues about what you're saying with your body language and facial expression.
  • Don't get frustrated if the person asks you to repeat what you've said.
  • Don't cover your lips when you speak.

These tips can help you get more out of a conversation. But they shouldn't be a substitute for seeing your doctor to determine the cause of your hearing loss. Be sure to have your hearing tested and find out if you're a candidate for a hearing aid or cochlear implant.

Other sources of support
For further support, contact:

  • The Canadian Hearing Society
  • The Hearing Foundation of Canada
  • The Canadian Hard of Hearing Association
  • Canadian Association of the Deaf

These organizations can provide you with employment services, classes, support, and more information about your condition.