An invisible disability affecting millions, hearing loss is often overlooked, going unnoticed and left untreated. Learn more about the surprising causes of hearing loss and why it’s important to have your hearing tested on a regular basis.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 1.5 billion people live with some form of hearing difficulty globally. Should nothing be done to raise awareness of this disability and its causes, the number of individuals affected by hearing loss could rise to more than 2.5 billion by 2050 – the not-too-distant future.
The effects of hearing loss are wide-reaching and can impact nearly every facet of a person’s life. As a result of this common disability, infants experience delays in language development, whereas adults often lose their ability to communicate optimally. Whenever the onset may be, living with hearing loss can lead to feelings of frustration, loneliness and isolation, and often affects sufferers’ mental health and their ability to live their lives to the fullest.
Identifying and diagnosing hearing issues early on always leads to better outcomes. Since the onset of hearing loss can occur at any age, having your or your dependants’ hearing tested on a recommended basis is key to catching developing hearing problems early on. An early diagnosis can make a big difference when it comes to minimising and treating the effects of hearing loss.
“People under 55 should have their hearing tested at least every five years and under 18s annually. Between 55-65, we recommend annual testing again. Anyone suffering from existing hearing loss, even if it’s minor, should go for yearly testing. It’s vital to catch rapidly declining hearing as soon as possible, so people can start using hearing aids.”
What is hearing impairment? A closer look at a common disability
When someone suffers from hearing loss, it means they can no longer hear as well as someone with so-called normal hearing. While undergoing a hearing test, individuals with normal hearing can detect between -10 – 15 dB HL. All thresholds and frequencies beyond that are considered disordered hearing.
Bear in mind that disordered hearing doesn’t always affect sufferers to the same degree. Disordered hearing ranges from slight to mild, moderate to moderately severe, to severe and, finally, profound. The issue can affect just one or both ears.
Depending on the severity, individuals can either be classified as hard of hearing or deaf. Those deemed hard of hearing tend to suffer from slight to severe cases and may still communicate via spoken language. They usually benefit from using assistive devices like cochlear implants and hearing aids.
A deaf person has profound hearing loss and can hear very little or nothing at all. Such individuals most often use sign language to communicate.
Appealing to Those Reluctant to See an Audiologist
For many complex reasons, people who suffer from disordered hearing are often reluctant to see an audiologist.
To get such persons to make that all-important hearing test appointment, you can try to follow Dr Dirk Koekemoer’s advice:
“I usually tell my reluctant loved ones that loss of hearing is the second most common chronic disability in the world. It’s among the primary reasons for stress in the workplace, loss of employment and productive living.”
“People mustn’t forget that hearing loss is a serious risk factor for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s. This condition isolates you from your loved ones, and may even cause other people to disrespect you.”
“Suffering from hearing loss, you can’t listen to music or hear the TV properly anymore either – things you’ll still want to do as you grow older. Another important thing to note is that both your life expectancy and quality of life decrease as you lose your hearing. People shouldn’t wait until it’s too late for a hearing aid: once you’ve lost the ability to hear, it’s gone.”
Common Causes of Hearing Loss
Loss of hearing is associated with various risk factors, some of which are more common than others. The most well-known cause should come as no surprise: ageing. After all, our inner ear structures degrade as we grow older.
Work-related noise is another common cause. It’s a fact that certain work environments are noisier than others. Workers in the mining industry, for example, are constantly working alongside loud machinery.
As a producer of revolutionary med-tech devices, eMoyo recently began supplying the US Military Veterans’ Association with Kuduwave portable audiometers – with the military being another field where employees are frequently exposed to loud noises.
Socio-economic factors have a significant impact on hearing difficulties too. Almost 80% of the people affected by disabling hearing impairment call a low- or middle-income country home. The WHO found approximately 60% of hearing issues in children are due to preventable causes, should the right public health measures have been in place.
Rubella, for instance, is among the diseases preventable by vaccination. However, only a handful of African countries routinely immunise against it. This is tragic, as congenital deafness is a common symptom of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Hearing loss occurs in almost 60% of CRS cases, and more than 100 000 babies are affected each year.
7 Surprising Causes of Hearing Loss
Some causes of disordered hearing are far more surprising than congenital disabilities, a loud work environment or advanced age. The good news is that several uncommon causes have to do with lifestyle choices. This means adopting healthier habits can decrease the odds of developing or severity of hearing issues.
1. The Correlation Between Diabetes and Hearing Loss
Did you know there’s a link between diabetes and hearing loss? Individuals diagnosed with diabetes are twice as likely to suffer from hearing issues. This is due to the nerve damage the disease causes to the ears.
Elevated blood sugar levels damage the nerves and blood vessels of the inner ear, whereas low blood sugar levels damage the way nerve signals travel from the inner ear to the brain. Thus, nerve damage caused by high and low blood sugar causes hearing issues.
Prediabetic individuals – i.e. those with elevated blood sugar levels but not quite elevated enough to qualify as type 2 diabetic – also have an increased risk of developing hearing issues. Such people experience a 30% higher hearing decline rate when compared to people with normal blood sugar.
Thankfully, type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease. This means improving nutrition and losing weight can reverse its negative effects or significantly delay the onset of hearing issues in sufferers.
2. The Relationship Between Stress and Hearing Loss
Stress is bad, as it impacts various systems and functions throughout the body. Extreme stress sends more blood to certain muscle groups, preparing them to react to perceived danger at a moment’s notice.
The increased blood flow to certain muscle groups means oxygen and other key nutrients are redirected from the vital systems responsible for hearing. Chronic stress sufferers may therefore develop hearing loss due to damage to the sensitive inner ear tissue and mechanisms.
Because of the poor blood circulation that typically accompanies stress, it can lead to pulsatile tinnitus. This condition causes sufferers to experience a pulsating, beating or pumping ear noise, matching the rhythm of the heartbeat.
Other mental health conditions associated with hearing loss include anxiety, depression and mood swings.
3. Ototoxicity – Loss of Hearing Due to Medication
Certain medications, known as ototoxic drugs, may lead to impaired hearing. Doctors can stop such hearing issues from worsening when caught early on.
Also called ear poisoning, a person that contracts ototoxicity experiences damage to the part of the inner ear that sends and receives sound and helps with balance. In some cases, the hearing loss is permanent, while in others, it’s temporary.
The extent of the damage depends on a few factors, including:
- The type of medication
- How much medication was used over what period
Drugs known to cause ototoxicity are:
- Aminoglycoside antibiotics
- Chemotherapeutic agents
- Loop diuretics or water pills
- Quinine (anti-malaria medication)
Amikacin and kanamycin injectables (members of the aminoglycoside family) are widely used to treat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), particularly in developing nations.
Read more about an October 2022 eMoyo and Entheos Hearing outreach in Knysna, South Africa, where Dr Koekemoer tested the hearing of a young boy living with the effects of MDR-TB ototoxicity, after being treated with injectable medications as an infant.
4. Excessive Alcohol Use and Loss of Hearing
The excessive consumption of alcohol on a regular basis is another lifestyle-related cause of hearing impairment. It affects the central auditory cortex – the part of the ear responsible for processing and interpreting auditory sounds.
A German study at the University of Ulm found that individuals who drink heavily over an extended period damage their auditory cortex, significantly increasing the time required to process sounds. This leads to problems hearing fast talkers and differentiating voices in places with lots of background noise.
It is useful to keep in mind that cutting down on alcohol or drinking in moderation not only prevents accelerated hearing loss, but will also benefit the body as a whole.
5. Smoking, Vaping and Disordered Hearing
Like overindulging in alcohol and being inactive, smoking and vaping are lifestyle choices which negatively impact overall health. Both smoking and vaping are also related to the development of noise-induced hearing loss.
Smoking is linked to hearing difficulties because smoke irritates the middle ear’s lining. Nicotine plays a role in the loss of hearing too, as it’s both a depressant and a stimulant which impacts the central nervous system by inhibiting the neurotransmitters responsible for sending audio signals to the brain.
Although some vapes don’t contain nicotine, they can still lead to hearing damage due to the flavourants in vaping liquid which contain propylene glycol. This synthetic liquid consists of two alcohol groups with known links to hearing problems when absorbed through the skin.
6. Sleep Apnea and Hearing Impairment
The disruptive breathing patterns experienced by sleep apnea sufferers can result in hearing problems. Although the correlation between the two issues isn’t clear, it’s likely because of reduced blood flow to the heavily oxygen-reliant inner ears.
As the inner ear and its systems are particularly delicate, even seemingly insignificant disruptions to the blood supply can impact hearing. Loud snoring, which commonly accompanies sleep apnea, could also play a part in hearing loss.
Researchers have found that sleep apnea is linked to a reduced ability to pick up specific frequencies and softer noises, as well as follow conversations in loud spaces.
14 000 men and women took part in a hearing evaluation and sleep study. Those diagnosed with sleep apnea were:
- 90% likelier to experience low-frequency hearing issues
- Over 30% likelier to experience high-frequency hearing issues
- Almost 40% likelier to experience low- and high-frequency hearing issues
7. Dental Issues and Hearing Loss
Among the most surprising causes of hearing loss has to be poor oral health. Neglecting your teeth and gums can lead to an abscess, dental infection or periodontal disease as bacteria flourishes. Without treatment, the infection may enter the bloodstream, spreading to the brain and throughout the body.
Once the dental infection spreads, it can lead to inflammation that restricts blood flow and leads to clotting. The hair cells inside the cochlea need good blood circulation as, without it, they get damaged or are even completely destroyed. This injury or destruction of the hair cells is what then leads to hearing loss.
Otodental syndrome, a rare genetic condition which causes malformed teeth, can also lead to hearing impairment.
When to Seek Help for Hearing Loss
When it comes to hearing loss, prevention is always better than cure. However, if it’s too late to prevent hearing loss, there’s always time to minimise its effects. The sooner treatment can begin, the better the outcome tends to be. That’s why sticking to an audiologist-recommended hearing test schedule is crucial.
Telltale signs of hearing impairment include:
- Experiencing unclear phone conversations
- Feeling like others are always mumbling
- Having a hard time following conversations in general
- Turning the music or TV’s volume up way too loud
- Struggling to locate where sounds originate from
- Experiencing a ringing in the ears (i.e., tinnitus)
As soon as you or someone you know is experiencing any of the issues listed above, it’s imperative to visit an audiologist as soon as possible.
As mentioned previously, Dr Koekemoer emphasises the importance of reaching out for help or going for testing as soon as symptoms of hearing loss become apparent:
“It’s so important to act the moment you feel that you have hearing loss. Don’t wait – because if you do, you’ll lose your ability to understand, and hearing aids won’t help like they’re supposed to. And remember: the incidents of developing depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s are significantly higher if you cannot hear well. Don’t delay: go and get your hearing tested.”
Combat Hearing Loss with the Kuduwave: A Fully Portable Med-Tech Solution
With hearing healthcare not as readily available in developing countries, access to revolutionary medical technology like the fully portable, boothless Kuduwave audiometer is more important than ever. The Kuduwave is ideal for use in philanthropic outreach missions and traditional hearing healthcare practices alike.
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