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Why it’s time to end the stigma of hearing loss

For ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician Dr. Gerard MacDonald, hearing loss is an invisible problem that many people deal with, but few talk about. About 38% of adult Canadians have hearing loss, and many more aren’t even aware of it.

“There’s still a stigma associated with hearing loss that’s not there for people who are visually impaired or those with physical disabilities,” says Dr. MacDonald, who practises in Truro and Amherst. “There’s a lot of denial from people who have hearing loss as well.”

Downplaying the problem
Making matters worse, hearing aids are expensive and often not covered by health insurance plans. “[They] are not affordable for a large segment of the population, particularly older people on pensions,” Dr. MacDonald says.

Hearing loss is not just an issue for older people. Noise-induced hearing loss is growing among younger generations. “One study notes that up to 17% of kids in their late teens and early twenties have evidence of noise-induced hearing loss, so it’s becoming a big issue,” says Dr. MacDonald.

Know the warning signs
Hearing loss doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a slow process. Sometimes, your friends and family are the first people to notice changes.

Watch for small things like having to turn up the TV or radio and having difficulty hearing people on the phone. “Or when you’re watching a movie and it’s hard to understand what people are saying, especially when someone has an accent,” Dr. MacDonald says.

Another red flag is difficulty hearing conversations in restaurants or crowded spaces – and changing your behaviour as a result. “It can be exhausting and people can just end up signing out.”

Hearing loss and dementia
You may start to avoid socializing with others, which can lead to isolation and depression.

Dr. MacDonald points to studies that show a relationship between dementia and hearing loss. “Mild hearing loss doubles your risk of dementia, moderate hearing loss triples it and people with severe hearing loss are five times more likely to have dementia. It’s not necessarily cause and effect, but there’s definitely an association.”

Studies show that treating hearing loss can help fend off dementia.

When should you get tested?
In Nova Scotia, children are screened at birth and before they go to school. “After that, you’ll be screened more often if you have risk factors like a family history of hearing loss or you’ve had a severe illness or congenital abnormalities,” Dr. MacDonald says.

If you are between 18 and 50, test every five to 10 years, and more often if you work in a noisy workplace or have a family history of hearing loss. After age 65, get a hearing test every one to three years.

Where to get tested
Hearing and Speech Nova Scotia provides free tests without a referral, but you may wait months to get in. Some private hearing aid agencies and dispensers do provide free testing and many have a Master’s trained audiologist on staff. “The important thing it to have a trusting relationship with them,” Dr. MacDonald says.

Hearing aids take time
It takes time to adjust to wearing hearing aids. Newer models fit in the ear canal and are almost invisible. “Be patient – it’s a foreign body, so there can be local irritation issues that can be rectified,” says Dr. MacDonald. Working with an audiologist or hearing aid technician can help adjust the volume, control and “gain,” the threshold of when you can hear and when it’s uncomfortably loud.

Take precautions
There’s also plenty you can do to prevent hearing loss in the first place. If you work in a noisy workplace, wear ear plugs and test your hearing regularly. Wear earplugs when you’re exposed to loud sounds, such as loud machinery, concerts, or when you’re using power tools or mowing the lawn.

When wearing ear buds, if people near you can hear the music, it’s too loud. Keep the volume of your device to no more than 60% of maximum. If you have ringing in your ears after wearing ear buds, you may have already damaged your hearing.

Get your hearing tested if you’re in doubt – “that’s the Number 1 thing,” advises Dr. MacDonald. “I always joke with my wife, who says, ‘I don’t know if you’re not hearing or not listening.’ A hearing test can help sort that out – or it can put you in hot water if your hearing thresholds are good!”

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