World Hearing Day is in March each year and it is a good time to consider a few matters relating to hearing, hearing impairment, deafness, etc…..

Some 5% of people have impaired hearing worldwide. This varies from mild to severe to total or profound hearing loss, also known as deafness. So if you know 20 people it is likely that one of them has a hearing challenge of some sort.

The main causes of hearing impairment are:

  • Ageing – as we age we lose “hairs” within the inner ear/cochlea and this creates irreversible hearing impairment.
  • Excessive noise – repeated exposure to loud noises (construction, music, headphone use, etc.) can irreversibly damage the ear.
  • Ear infection – repeated or ongoing untreated ear infections can damage the ear
  • Ear trauma – injuries (e.g. from a fall) can damage the ear.
  • Infection during pregnancy  – maternal infections such as Syphilis, Cytomegalovirus (CMV), and Rubella (German measles) can create hearing impairment for the new-born.
  • Medication side effect – certain antibiotics and other drugs can cause hearing loss, although this is not common today.
  • Congenital defects – some babies are born with deformities that can include hearing loss.
  • Ear wax – wax build up in the outer ear canal is quite common and can cause hearing loss.

Treatment varies depending on the cause of hearing impairment but the main options are:

  • Hearing aids that amplify sounds.
  • Ear wax removal.
  • Medical and or surgical treatments for infections and injuries.
  • Cochlear implants that can restore hearing quite well in some cases even though this is a costly intervention.
  • Lifestyle adaptations such as sign language, text-captions (sub-titles), etc.

An important consideration is the social and other impact of hearing impairment. Hearing impairment can lead to a degree of isolation, loneliness and depression. This is by no means inevitable and many people with impaired hearing live full & happy lives. Those of us with good hearing should note:

  • There is no place for criticism, irritability, or judgmental attitudes. Nobody chooses to have hearing problems. A sensitive and considerate mindset can help while anything else may well be cruel and harmful.
  • Speaking clearly and slowly (to assist hearing and or lip reading) can be helpful although patronising / joking should always be avoided (it is NOT funny).
  • Hearing impairment has nothing to do with cognitive function. Hearing poorly is not stupidity although thinking it is, is!

Hearing impairment is a fairly common concern. There are many causes, although ageing is the most common cause. There are some good treatment options in many cases. A non-judgmental supportive, patient approach can be very helpful and is something we can all work on.

Written by Dr Colin Burns