Loud music, hairdryers, lawnmowers, drills, heavy traffic and vacuum cleaners are just some of the sounds that we have to tolerate on a daily basis. The bad news is that they’re putting our hearing at risk, which is what Save Your Hearing Day (May 31) is all about.
According to figures reported by the World Health Organisation last month “over 5 percent of the world’s population [or 430 million people] require rehabilitation to address their ‘disabling’” loss.
The figures were broken down into 432 million adults and 34 million children, with the report estimating that those numbers would rise to more than 700 million people – or one in 10 people – by 2050.
In the UAE, a survey by implant company MED-EL estimated that four percent of the population suffered from impaired hearing. That was back in 2017; the figure now is likely to have risen to around six percent, in line with the global increase in cases.
Clearly this is a huge problem, with research suggesting that almost half of all cases could have been prevented. So why weren’t they?
So many of us take our hearing for granted. If we think about how often we go to the dentist, the care were take of our eyes, the multi-millions spent by governments on educating us about exercise and healthy eating, it’s hard to understand why we don’t spend more time considering how fragile our sense of hearing is.
So let’s listen to what two of the UAE’s leading ear, nose and throat specialists have to say about it.
What are the main types of hearing loss?
“There are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural and mixed,” explains Dr Mark Bassim, otologist and neurotologist at the Surgical Subspecialties Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “Sensorineural hearing loss may be permanent and is caused by damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. By contrast, conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in the outer or middle ear and can usually be treated medically or surgically. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include excessive earwax buildup, a punctured eardrum, fluid in the middle ear or a problem with the ossicles [the little bones inside the ear]. Mixed hearing damage is caused by a combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.”
How does hearing loss happen?
“Loud noises or prolonged exposure to noise can cause hearing loss by damaging the cells and membranes in the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that is responsible for hearing,” says Dr Bassim. “Loud noises cause the hair cells in the ear to bend. If the damage isn’t too serious, these hairs can recover after some time. However, as some of these cells get overworked, they can die and they cannot be replaced. When this happens, the ear becomes less sensitive to sound, diminishing a person’s hearing. In addition to the hairs in the ear, noise can also damage the nerve that carries sound from the ear to the brain.”
What about noise-induced hearing loss?
“Noise induced hearing loss is by far the most common preventable cause of all hearing loss,” says Dr Abdul Ghani Siddique, consultant otolaryngologist at Dubai London Clinic & Speciality Hospital in Nakheel Mall, Palm Jumeirah. “It’s not only regular exposure to loud sounds that causes damage to hearing; even one incidence of exposure to excessive loud sound or a loud blast can permanently damage hearing.”
Dr Bassim adds: “We are seeing an increased incidence in teenagers and young adults because of the widespread use of headphones and the habit of listening to music or gaming at loud levels for long periods of time. Research shows that people are beginning to experience hearing loss at a younger age, with up to 12 percent of children between the ages of six and 19 experiencing noise-related hearing loss.”
How loud is too loud?
“Sound is measured in decibels and sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially damaging to hearing,” says Dr Siddique. “As well as industrial noises, even domestic sounds like lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners and washing machines can be damaging to hearing. Certain toys make sounds that are excessively loud and can damage a child’s hearing if held close to the ear. Parents should ensure a sound level is safe before buying such toys.”
What about music on headphones?
“Repeated damaging noise can age the ear 50 percent faster than normal, so a good rule to follow is 90 minutes at 80 percent volume to help protect the ears,” advises Dr. Bassim. “If people around you can hear your music or if you raise your voice to speak, that means you should turn the volume down. It can help to buy higher quality headphones as there is often a temptation to increase volume on low quality headphones to hear the detail in the music.”
What is tinnitus?
“Tinnitus is a buzzing or a ringing sound, which people may hear in the absence of any outside sound,” says Dr Siddique. “Two common reasons for tinnitus are noise exposure and old age. However, there are many more causes of tinnitus, including certain medications and a very large group where the cause remains unknown.”
What about stigma?
“There is a stigma and negativity attached to hearing loss and use of hearing aids and therefore in general it takes about 10 years for hearing impaired people to seek professional help,” reveals Dr. Siddique. “Seventy-one percent of these people report better hearing, good social relations and better work performance after receiving help in the form of hearing aids or other implants. It is therefore recommended that hearing impaired people should seek professional help at the earliest opportunity to improve the quality of their life.”
How can you protect your child’s hearing?
“As a general rule if a parent can hear the music sitting next to a child who is listening through a headset, then it is too loud and can cause damage to hearing,” says Dr Siddique. “On today’s devices, parents can set a maximum volume on their child’s personal music player and at music events, wearing properly fitted ear plugs or earmuffs helps. During these events, taking frequent breaks from the noisy arena for a few minutes can also prevent hearing damage. Remember, using cotton wool balls are not a substitute for properly fitted earplugs. Whereas 80 decibels can cause damage over a prolonged exposure, sounds at 120 decibels can cause damage within minutes and music events frequently have sound range in the region 115 to 120 decibels.”
What can adults do?
“Listening breaks are a time where you turn the music off and enjoy the quiet,” says Dr Bassim. “Loud sounds can bend the hairs in your ears like blades of grass. Giving them a break gives them time to recover before any damage becomes permanent.”
How can you tell if you have hearing loss?
“In an adult, failing to respond or asking others to repeat themselves are telltale signs,” says Dr. Siddique. “A person may talk loudly, may detach themselves socially or may complain about the inability to hear in a crowded place. There are various self-assessment questionnaires available online if you think you’re suffering with hearing loss, but it’s important to get a standard hearing test done in a soundproof environment by a professionally qualified audiologist.”
What about sleeping?
“There are several studies that show that sleeping in a noisy environment contributes to restless sleep and poor overall recovery,” says Dr. Bassim. “This will in turn reflect on the health of the ear, as well as on the person’s ability to focus in noisy environments.”
Why don’t we know any of this?
“I think there is a real lack of awareness of hearing damage as it usually goes unnoticed in its earliest stages,” explains Dt. Bassim. “However, noise-related hearing loss is entirely preventable. There are many resources available to help diagnose hearing loss and support people in making healthier listening choices. If you are worried about hearing loss, don’t delay and see a doctor as soon as possible.
Can diet help?
“While many vitamins are commonly advertised to help protect hearing or reverse hearing loss, there is no solid evidence to support the routine prescription or use of these vitamins,” reveals Dr Bassim. “On the other hand, the ear, like the rest of the body, stays healthier if you follow a healthy diet and exercise regimen.”
What if you’ve already lost hearing?
“In most cases, a hearing aid helps people who have permanent hearing loss” advises Dr Siddique. “The most amazing advancement is a cochlear implant, which can improve hearing ability even in a totally deaf person. For those who have conductive hearing loss, there is potential for a surgical cure; for example perforated eardrum can be repaired surgically to improve hearing.”
How do aids work?
“Hearing aids by and large work by amplifying sounds to a level which is audible to a hearing-impaired person,” explains Dr Siddique. “Not every hearing-impaired person has the same level of hearing loss and same frequency hearing loss. Present-day hearing aids are clever devices which can be set to the individual’s need. It is similar to having individual prescriptions for spectacles – hearing aids are programmed according to an individual’s hearing test or audiogram.”
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.