A common stigma associated with hearing loss is that losing your hearing means you are old. After all, presbycusis – age-related hearing loss – is very common from about 65 years old. But a hearing loss can manifest in all sorts of ways and therefore at any age. So what does a hearing loss like at different ages in life?
At our youngest age, hearing loss can be hereditary or due to a complication during pregnancy. While outer ear disorders can be easily detected in infants, middle or inner ear losses can be trickier. When a parent or doctor suspects an infant or toddler has a hearing loss, special hearing assessments are undertaken. Infants will be put through a Evoked Otoacoustic Emissions test or an Auditory Brainstem Response test. These non-invasive tests are conducted while the baby sleeps and monitors the ear and brain responses to sound. The earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the treatment can start to provide the child the best chance at speech development.
For toddlers, the tests undertaken to check for hearing loss include Play Audiometry and Visual Reinforcement Audiometry (VRA). Play Audiometry requires the child to touch or move a toy when a sound is heard. VRA is where the child must look at a sound source and gets a “reward” moving toy for correct answers.
Rehabilitation choices for young children diagnosed with hearing loss vary based on a number of factors. The severity of the hearing loss, the age of the child and parental preference play a key role. Some toddlers may be fit with a child’s hearing aid, others may need to look at a cochlear implant. These can be fit from about 10-12 months in age, and recommended for congenitally deaf children under 3 years old. Putting together a full rehabilitation program as early as possible is key for the child’s development.
From the age of about 5 years old, children can do normal hearing tests like adults, if slightly shorter. These are often suggested by a GP or the child’s school teacher if they think they are struggling to follow. It consists of a Pure Tone Audiometry test, clicking the buzzer when one hears a tone. If we find a hearing loss, the child is then referred to Hearing Australia to receive government-subsidised treatment. This can include hearing aids or Roger microphone devices to help primarily with hearing in classes. These services continue until the patient turns 26, at which point they can receive services privately from any clinic.
Hearing can deteriorate in children (and in adults) at any age for a number of reasons. Ear infections can cause temporary loss, and recurring infections can have a more long term effect. Perforated eardrums and otitis media – or glue ear – are also quite common in children and can affect hearing. Importantly, if your child tells you they suddenly don’t hear out of an ear, take them to an audiologist. They may also say they suddenly hear a ringing or buzzing in their ear. This can be a Sudden Onset Hearing Loss, which can manifest for no apparent reason and is a medical emergency.
In some cases, a hearing test will show no hearing loss, but the child is struggling to hear. From the age of 7-8 years and upwards, we can test for Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). Sometimes the issue is not the hearing, but rather the way our brain interprets the signals. Typically this manifests with difficulties filtering sounds with background noise or mishearing words, but there are many subtypes of APD. Some people can reach well into adulthood before being diagnosed with APD, which can affect their facility at learning. But once diagnosed, there are ways to train the brain to hear the signals we need it to.
In many ways, developing a hearing loss during adulthood can be one of the most complex to deal with. At this point, the perceived association of hearing loss and old age or disability receives more stigma. And because of this unfortunately, many adults with a hearing loss will wait several years before addressing it. This can lead to irritation, social isolation, and adverse long term brain health impacts. Furthermore, an unaddressed hearing loss can continue to worsen much more rapidly than if rehabilitated early.
Similar reasons as with children can cause a hearing loss in adults, including Sudden Onset Hearing Loss. For adults, there is also the added risk of noise exposure, either sudden or continuous. Workers in construction or music industries, recreational rifle shooters, even dentists or air traffic controllers can be at risk. As hearing loss is usually progressive, it may be some time before you even notice something amiss. And usually, it’s friends and family that will notice it more than you.
Tinnitus also becomes more common in adulthood unfortunately, particularly due to noise exposure. There are many management techniques, including opening the window at night or listening to white noise, to help alleviate tinnitus. In more severe cases, even without a hearing loss necessarily, hearing aids can provide relief and assistance as well.
People receiving a government pension can receive free annual hearing checks and subsidies towards hearing aids. Hearing aids come in varying shapes and sizes and nowadays are quite discreet with many exciting features, including bluetooth compatibility. They also come in different levels of technology, with varying degrees of speech clarity and noise reduction. As a rule of thumb, younger adults may need higher technology levels to assist with meetings or social activities. As we move towards the later years, reaching retirement for example, mid-range hearing aids may be sufficient.
Hearing loss in the elderly
Once we reach around 65 years and above, age-induced hearing loss begins to be more common. Think of it as having had a life well spent and your ears working hard giving you the best experiences! Many different factors can contribute to hearing loss as the years continue. Certain medications or head traumas can have an impact on your hearing, as can many cancer treatments unfortunately. Because of this, even if you don’t feel a loss, it’s worth getting a check-up for a benchmark. You never know when you might need a hearing test to use for comparison.
At this stage, it’s not uncommon to hear “I’m not ready for hearing aids”. But helping your hearing is about more than just being able to “hear” the sounds. Addressing a hearing loss allows you to stay social and engaged with the world around you. It also helps reduce the risk of some brain-related issues like dementia or Alzheimer’s, and can assist with balance issues. And of course, it opens up options for family and social activities and gatherings.
Those on a government pension can receive subsidies towards hearing aids or have options for free devices. Hearing aid advancements are continually coming out, making and evolving with you. Most can come in rechargeable formats now to help with dexterity difficulties in changing batteries. They also have bluetooth compatibility to assist with phone calls and watching TV.
Call for more information
So remember that as usual, age is just a number when it comes to hearing loss! Any number of factors at all ages can affect your hearing, so don’t hesitate to get a test done. The earlier the diagnosis, the more beneficial the treatment will be for your everyday life. Have a chat with your local Falls of Sound clinic for more information. Your audiologist will be able to offer advice to best assist with your situation.