Hearing impairment affects people of all ages. Lifestyle changes, proper nutrition, and supplements can prevent or slow hearing loss.
Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Many Canadians can’t. Hearing loss affects people of all ages and profoundly impacts emotional, physical, and social well-being. Don’t suffer in silence. Lifestyle changes, proper nutrition, and supplements can slow or prevent hearing impairment, while hearing devices make coping with permanent hearing loss easier.
Hearing loss—the basics
The Hearing Foundation of Canada warns, “Hearing loss is the fastest growing, and one of the most prevalent, chronic conditions facing Canadians today.” It’s no longer a senior’s problem. In a 2006 Statistics Canada survey, more than 1 million Canadians aged 15 and older reported having a hearing limitation. Other studies suggest it’s closer to 3 million.
Hearing loss causes problems at school and work, sometimes resulting in forced retirement. As conversations, meetings, and phone calls become difficult, we may withdraw from family and friends. According to Rebecca Vanderelst, doctor of audiology, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, “There is an increase in depression and anxiety rates among those with significantly impaired hearing.” A 2013 study further linked hearing loss with cognitive decline in older adults.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)
NIHL, the most common and preventable cause of hearing loss, is being diagnosed at young ages. While occupational noise has decreased since the early 1980s, social noise exposure has tripled for young people. European and American studies indicate between 10 and 66 percent of teenagers exhibit hearing damage, the higher number associated with greater use of personal music devices and rock concert attendance.
Permanent and irreversible, NIHL can occur after a single exposure to an extremely loud noise. However, it’s more likely to result from cumulative, long-term exposure to moderate or loud sounds. The chances of developing NIHL increase with length of exposure, loudness, and proximity to the source.
NIHL-causing industries include the military, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, construction, and music—both for musicians and listeners. Warning signs of overly high noise level include
- ringing or buzzing in ears
- muffled, unclear sounds
- difficulty following or understanding conversations against background noise
Hearing impairment can also be caused by
- age: 33 percent of people over 65 and 50 percent over 75 have presbycusis, age-related hearing loss
- congenital conditions or ear-related abnormalities
- prenatal conditions: fetal alcohol syndrome, conflicting parental blood types
- disease: viral and bacterial infections, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, Ménière’s disease, otosclerosis, tumours, autoimmune conditions
- medications: antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, Aspirin, erectile dysfunction drugs
- head or ear trauma
- chemical/toxic damage to the ear
Preventing hearing loss
We can slow down or prevent hearing loss by paying attention to our environment and bodies.
Following safe listening habits at work, home, or wherever there are loud sounds prevents NIHL. That means
- decreasing the volume on sound-producing equipment (MP3 players, TV, radio, etc.)
- wearing hearing protectors at noisy events (workplaces, dance clubs, sporting events)
- standing farther away from noise sources
- spending less time in noisy environments; the safe zone for listening to 97 decibels is half an hour, yet loud rock concerts register between 110 and 120 decibels.
Other lifestyle changes can also help prevent ear damage and hearing loss.
- Stop smoking.
- Don’t use cotton swabs, hairpins, or other objects to remove earwax buildup.
- Keep nose blowing gentle and use both nostrils.
- When flying, swallow and yawn frequently during landing to equalize air pressure in the ears.
Eat for your ears
Fish, long considered “brain food,” is also “ear food.” Eating just two servings a week of omega-3-rich fish could reduce the risk of age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) by 42 percent. Other studies suggest eating foods high in cholesterol increase the chances of presbycusis, while foods high in monounsaturated fats reduce it. So, consider eating more fish and nuts, less meat, and fewer high-fat dairy products.
Supplements that protect hearing
Studies on the effects of supplements on hearing loss are relatively new and offer mixed results. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a combination of antioxidant vitamins (daily beta carotene and vitamins C and E) and magnesium were associated with lower risks of hearing loss, while an earlier study did not; however, it pointed to a benefit from increasing folate intake. A Dutch study also showed folic acid supplements slowed down loss of low-frequency hearing among 50- to 70-year-olds.
In another study that specifically looked at occupational noise, vitamin E appeared to reduce the risk of NIHL. Other supplements that might offer some prevention, but have not been scientifically tested on people include
- lipoic acid
- citrus bioflavonoids
- coenzyme Q10
- oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs)
Note: always consult a health care practitioner before starting supplements.
What’s new in treatments?
“Just like regular dental checkups or eye exams, regular hearing screenings by an audiologist are a great way to keep on top of our hearing health,” says Vanderelst. “Early detection and intervention can prevent further loss or manage serious ear disorders.” Yet too many of us deny or don’t realize we’re having hearing problems, so we don’t get treatment.
Medical treatments include cochlear implants—no longer just for children, but also for older adults with profound hearing loss—and research into someday regenerating damaged auditory hair cells.
On the technological side, today’s hearing aids are smaller, more versatile, and attractive. “Hearing aid research constantly tries to improve device sound quality and usability,” says Vanderelst. “Hearing aids are now compatible with wireless streaming devices such as cellphones, televisions, and personalized microphones to give the hearing-impaired user an edge in difficult listening situations.”
Improved sound-enhancing technologies channel wanted sounds while muting background noise. Hearing loops, remote captioning, wireless devices, and speech recognition systems all help those with hearing problems to communicate. Smart phone or tablet apps can test hearing, flash to alert people to nearby sounds, or double as hearing aids.
Keep in mind that buying hearing aids online or by mail is cheaper but lacks the testing, customization, and ongoing adjustments audiologists provide. Subsidies may be available through government and other programs.