As we get older, most of us will need glasses. There’s no judgment associated with that; it is simply a fact, vision changes. Our eyes just don’t see as well as they did when we were in our 20s. We go and get our vision tested, and we don’t wait to do it either.
So why is there still a stigma associated with changes in hearing?
It’s perfectly natural and there’s no need for shame or embarrassment. Yet people who suspect they may have hearing loss wait on average five to seven years before doing anything about it.
“People may not be aware that losing your hearing is actually pretty normal and it’s a natural part of aging,” says Jillian Price, chief audiologist at HearingLife Canada.
“If you really dig down into why people are so embarrassed and reluctant to admit anything is amiss it definitely has to do with age. It’s like admitting that you’re getting old, even though hearing loss isn’t necessarily related to age,” she says.
It doesn’t help that society can be cruel.
Think of your typical sitcom that features a grandpa character off in the corner not paying any attention—he is regarded as a silly old man and made fun of. “There’s a stigma attached, of being less than or out of touch. That’s why people are so embarrassed, they don’t want that perception of themselves,” she says.
Hearing loss, in fact, affects all ages.
There are medical reasons for it, it can be congenital (you are born with it), or it can be part of a genetic condition. Aging is just one aspect.
“We can’t shut our ears off. There’s no volume control and there’s no way to block out the sound naturally.”
“A lot of hearing loss is actually due to years and years of damage caused by environmental noise. I don’t think people pay attention to the fact that we live in a really noisy world and that our ears are constantly bombarded,” says Price. “We can’t shut our ears off. There’s no volume control and there’s no way to block out the sound naturally.”
No one suspects they may be doing permanent damage. We’re not typically taught to care for our hearing. “That’s why so many people end up having hearing loss when they get a little bit older because it’s just been years and years of unprotected exposure and damage”, says Price.
Is there anything we can do to protect it?
To start, if you know you’re going to be in a noisy environment, wear earplugs. For any concert you attend, whether in a small or large venue, earplugs are a must.
Hairstylists who work with hair dryers all day, and bartenders and wait staff who work in bars where music blares, must be mindful.
Other loud noises are insidious and less likely to be anticipated. These include loud buzzers in school gymnasiums and at sporting events, as well as overly loud toys for children.
People who wear earbuds or headphones should be careful to keep the music they listen to at a reasonable level. “There’s sort of a formula for how long the exposure and how loud,” explains Price. “If you turn up the volume, you cut the time. If you just turn things down, you can listen longer. It’s just about being smart and reasonable.”
Many don’t realize that noise exposure kills off the tiny hair cells in your ears that detect sound. These don’t regenerate, so once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Hearing loss typically happens gradually and over time. It’s minimal in the beginning so most don’t usually even notice. Price warns, “If you don’t ever think about it and ask, ‘Is this too loud?’ you could be one of those people who end up with hearing loss, and you could be advancing it much quicker than what would happen naturally through aging.”
When people aren’t hearing well they can withdraw from their social environment. The world becomes a lonely place. Little surprise, then, that there’s a very real association with untreated hearing loss and rates of depression, loneliness, and social isolation.
Even if you don’t suspect any hearing problems, there’s no need to wait to get tested. This simple, fast and free online hearing test will help you identify how well you hear from the comfort of your home.
Thankfully, we’re all much more proactive in managing our health these days. Just add it to the list: yearly physical exam, blood pressure, colonoscopy, mammogram, hearing check.