Hearing loss, while technically not life threatening, does threaten quality of life. The Garvan Research Foundation is using NSW Seniors Festival (1-10 April, 2016) to remind people, of all ages, to prioritise their hearing, as any hearing damage cannot be reversed.
Professor David Ryugo is Head of the Hearing Research Laboratory at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research. His team’s research is focused on documenting brain changes in response to hearing loss.
“Most hearing loss is caused by damage to the ear,” Prof Ryugo says. “When the ear gets damaged, less sound enters the system because you need greater volume in order to hear. This decrease in auditory stimulation causes a rewiring of the brain and affects its ability to decipher sound. This is where the symptoms of hearing loss come in, making it difficult to comprehend sound.
“Hearing loss results in disturbances in loudness perception, the emergence of phantom sounds – like buzzing or ringing (tinnitus) – and a difficulty in understanding speech in the presence of background noise. The technologies available for combating hearing loss – hearing aids and cochlear implants – address damage to the ear but not the consequent changes in the brain. That’s why they do not work well in noisy environments.
“My team assesses the brain changes that occur as a result of hearing loss. By understanding more about how hearing loss causes the brain to change, we hope to gain insight into how the brain might play a role in restoring hearing loss.”
Hearing relies on hair cells in the inner ear. These tiny cells convert sound vibrations into electrical signals, which then travel to the brain to be deciphered. When the hair cells are damaged, hearing loss is the result.
The most debilitating consequence of hearing loss is the inability to understand speech especially when there are other voices in the background, making it difficult to be socially active. With 50% of Australians over 60 suffering significant hearing loss, it means that the majority of people will live out the final decades of their lives with a communication impairment. People with hearing loss tend to avoid noisy restaurants, dread family holiday dinners, and skip parties because of their communication problem.
According to Prof Ryugo, we are still a long way from understanding enough about hearing loss and the brain to develop approaches to restore hearing. So, the best thing to do is look after your hearing now, as best you can.
“Taking care of your hearing means minimising your exposure to elements that harm hearing. This includes environmental noise (trucks, motorcycles, power tools, domestic appliances, concerts, loud music and loud venues), chemicals (drugs and solvents), viruses, and head trauma.
“Avoiding situations where harmful noise is present will help preserve hearing. We know that 15 minutes of exposure to 100dB causes damage to hearing, and there are plenty of apps that monitor the level of noise and check that it’s below that limit. For example: ‘Maximum dB Exposure Time’, ‘RTA Lite’ or ‘SPL Meterthat’, which are all free to download.
“Loud sound is like radiation or ultraviolet light exposure; a little bit won’t hurt but the exposure is cumulative so eventually it will irreversibly damage your hearing.
“The inability to interact socially as a result of hearing loss can lead to a person withdrawing from their community. It is this social withdrawal that makes individuals more vulnerable to depression and five times more at risk for early onset dementia. In the end, having good hearing during your ‘golden years’ plays a significant role in to achieving the richest fulfilment in life,” said Professor Ryugo.
FACTS ABOUT HEARING LOSS:
- 1 in 6 Australians suffer hearing loss, by 2050, this will increase to 1 in 41.
- 50% of Australians over 60 years suffer significant hearing loss2.
- Less than 20% of the people with hearing loss have taken steps to deal with it1.
- Moderate exposures to loud sounds - 100 dB for 15 minutes (equivalent to a song in a night club) - can cause permanent damage to hearing.
- Social withdrawal that makes individuals more vulnerable to depression and five times more at risk for early onset dementia.
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1 Better Hearing Australia: http://www.betterhearing.org.au/.
2 Access Economics Report 2006.
3 Dangerous decibels: http://dangerousdecibels.org/education/information-center.
4 Garvan Institute of Medical Research: http://www.garvan.org.au/research/diseases-we-research/hearing-loss.