Protecting your hearing and managing hearing loss

Last updated on 21 September 2023

It is important to protect your hearing no matter your age, because once you lose your hearing you won’t get it back. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • 73 percent of older Australians over 70 experience mild to severe hearing loss
  • Hearing loss can have a huge impact on your quality of life, physical and mental health, and make it difficult to communicate
  • Assistive hearing devices, like hearing aids, are available to manage life with hearing loss

That’s why it’s important to practise safe ear health throughout your life, like wearing earplugs when going to loud concerts or wearing ear protection when working at loud jobs.

National peak body Deafness Forum of Australia reports that 73 percent of Australians aged over 70 have mild to severe hearing loss, and this number increases with age. Around 85 percent of residents living in nursing homes have some form of hearing impairment.

Chair of Deafness Forum of Australia, David Brady, says that hearing loss can have a huge impact on your life and is vital to a person’s communication abilities, quality of life, social participation, and health, which is why it is so important to protect your hearing at any age, including if you have already started to lose your hearing.

“Many common causes of hearing loss can be prevented, including hearing loss caused by exposure to loud sound at concerts and nightclubs, sporting events or machinery in workplaces,” explains Mr Brady.

“The sad reality is there still exists a stigma surrounding deafness and hearing loss in today’s Australia.

“People who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a chronic ear or balance disorder are more likely to be misunderstood, suffer discrimination, and become socially isolated compared to Australians who have good hearing.”

It is important to protect your hearing because once you lose your hearing, you won’t get it back.

Impacts of hearing loss

Communication is a really important part of quality of life.

The World Health Organisation believes that nearly one in six people around the world live with hearing loss that has a direct impact on their daily life.

Mild or moderate hearing loss can make it hard to hear conversational speech in noisy places. For example, having the grandchildren over and being unable to hear what is being said over the joyful sounds of the kids.

Not being able to communicate with someone due to hearing loss can affect your health and mental health, and result in anxiety, depression, or feelings of loneliness.

Older people may find themselves becoming increasingly frustrated or even embarrassed because they can’t communicate or understand what is being said to them.

Recent research has shown that hearing loss also makes an older person twice as likely to develop some form of dementia.

Communicating with others through hearing stimulates your brain, so a loss of hearing can have a really detrimental effect on how your interact and react to the world around you and not stimulate parts of your brain like it previously did.

Signs of hearing loss

If you are living with hearing loss, or your family and friends notice signs of hearing loss, it is vital to listen to the signs.

Seeing an audiologist can help you potentially prevent further hearing loss or manage the hearing loss.

Some signs of hearing loss could include:

  • Not hearing when someone talks to you
  • Responding incorrectly to a conversation because you think the person talking to you said something else
  • Struggle to talk over the phone
  • Listen to your TV, radio, or electronic device on a loud volume
  • You notice that things sound muffled
  • People tell you that you aren’t speaking in a clear way
  • Cannot hear sounds that have a high frequency, like a telephone
  • Experience ringing in your ears, also known as tinnitus
  • Have ear discharge

If you have any of these symptoms, you may have some level of hearing loss in your ears.

You may find family and friends highlighting to you that they are concerned that you are experiencing hearing loss. While it can be difficult or feel offensive to be told by family and friends that you may have hearing loss, it is important to take note of it and to watch for your own signs on whether you are struggling to hear.

Even if you don’t think it’s a concern, there is no harm in keeping on top of your health and getting your hearing checked by a professional. It can be beneficial to visit your audiologist for a hearing checkup once a year.

Safe ear care

Hearing loss can vary in severity and could range from having difficulty hearing someone talking in a noisy place to profound hearing loss where you cannot hear raised voices. And hearing loss doesn’t have to be both ears, it could occur in one or both of your ears.

Ways you can practise good ear care include:

  • Not putting anything into your ears (yes, that does include cotton buds!)
  • Going to a doctor or audiologist if you notice pus or fluid leaking from your ear
  • Not swimming in water that is dirty
  • Wear earplugs at concerts
  • Do not listen to music on a very loud volume or listen to music for too long through headphones
  • Avoid loud noise exposure if possible
  • Practise proper ear safety at loud workplaces, like wearing earmuffs, earplugs or both
  • Avoid treating any ear problems you have with oils, herbs or alternative remedies
  • Keep on top of your health, some diseases can impact or cause a loss of hearing

Sometimes, your medication may have a bad effect on your hearing. Make sure to discuss with your doctor about your medication and whether it could impact your ear health.

Managing hearing loss

An audiologist is the best person to visit about ear safety and your ear health. While you may feel like your hearing has already been lost, there are still a lot of interventions and ways to manage your hearing loss.

For some older people, some hearing loss may be caused by wax blockages in their ear, which is a simple fix by seeing your doctor.

If you have had an ear infection or there are physical issues with your ear structure, your doctor may find surgery an appropriate way to assist with your hearing problems.

Specialists can put in place treatment plans that can assist with your hearing. For example, hearing aids and cochlear implants are an important part of managing hearing loss and ensure you are still able to communicate with those around you.

A hearing aid is a common device among older Australians. It is a device that is worn over one or both of your ears and can help amplify any sounds around you.

A cochlear implant is for people that have bad hearing loss and hearing aids cannot provide enough sound for you to be able to hear. This implant doesn’t amplify sound but instead changes the sounds around you into electric signals, which can move through the ear and stimulate the hearing nerve. Your brain then processes what the hearing nerve says and translates it into sounds.

Getting a cochlear implant requires surgery, whereas hearing aids do not as they are external sound devices.

The Deafness Forum of Australia says that older people who would receive some benefit from utilising a hearing aid tend to not seek this sort of intervention for six to ten years.

If the hearing loss is profound, you may decide to pick up other communication techniques that would replace your hearing – like Auslan (Australia sign language).

Always go to a hearing specialist or doctor to discuss your hearing loss and the best treatment for you.

Communicating with hearing loss

If you are living with hearing loss, there are some ways to facilitate better communication even if you have difficulty hearing.

People don’t need to necessarily shout to have you hear, but it can be beneficial for the person to speak slowly and clearly when communicating with you.

If you have a “better ear”, then ask the person you are with to move to your good side.

When talking to someone, make sure they are standing in lighting so you can see their face. If you aren’t standing in a well lit area, ask to switch positions or find a better lit area to talk.

People who have hearing loss can sometimes rely on some level of lip reading to assist them in understanding what is being said, so it is important that the person you are talking to doesn’t over-exaggerate their words in an attempt to make you understand through lip reading – in some cases this can actually make it more difficult!

Try to avoid noisy locations to chat, being in cafes or public may result in a lot of background noise which can impact your ability to hear the conversation. If you can organise conversations with loved ones in places that have minimal background noise, it can make communicating with others more fruitful.

How do you practice safe ear health? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Allied health to assist with the ageing experience
Tips for managing your arthritis
Top health concerns for older people