The quiet epidemic of hearing loss in Ireland
One in 12 people in Ireland will acquire a permanent hearing loss, experts estimate
The Tilda study points to hearing loss leading to lower social participation, more loneliness and depressive symptoms – particularly in older men. Photograph: iStock
There is a quiet epidemic of hearing loss in Ireland, as many people ignore the problem or suffer in silence for years before getting their hearing loss treated.
The Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists estimates that one in 12 people in Ireland will acquire a permanent hearing loss. And about 50 per cent of those over 75 say that they experience some hearing loss, according to the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Tilda). Yet the same study found that only about 20 per cent of those who say they have fair to poor hearing wear hearing aids.
“People often don’t know who to go to or who to trust and they wait years before they go for a hearing test,” says Trevor Griffin, an audiologist with Chime, the national charity for deafness and hearing loss (formerly DeafHear and originally the National Association for the Deaf).
Unlike sight tests which most people will go for willingly, there is a stigma about hearing loss as people associate it with the ageing process and are often reluctant to having their hearing checked. Stories about poor-quality or malfunctioning hearing aids abandoned in drawers – and the high cost of hearing aids – also discourage some people from getting their hearing checked out.
“Studies have found that people with hearing loss are two to three times more likely to have a significant fall than those without hearing loss,” says Brendan Lennon, director of advocacy at Chime. Older people with untreated hearing loss have also been found to have much faster rates of cognitive decline than older people who have normal hearing.
The Tilda study also points to hearing loss leading to lower social participation, more loneliness and depressive symptoms – particularly in older men. The researchers concluded that screening for hearing loss at an earlier stage, and promotion of uptake of hearing aids, has the potential to improve the ageing experience for many.
The Lancet Commission report on dementia in 2017 found that the early treatment of hearing loss reduced risk of cognitive decline due to the enhancement of social and personal relationships in those who could hear well again.
Griffin says he would advise people to have their hearing checked every two years from their late 30s or early 40s onwards. “People are on the go constantly now and we are seeing hearing loss at earlier ages – particularly for those who work in very noisy environments,” he says.
Treating a hearing loss early not only improves the quality of life for the individual but it also means that people have a much greater chance of adjusting to using hearing aids because they haven’t spent years not hearing certain sounds.
“When we hear correctly, we subconsciously filter out background sounds but if you’ve a hearing loss, there are sounds you might not have heard for years so when you start wearing a hearing aid at first, your brain has to readjust to hearing those sounds and filtering them out again,” explains Griffin.
Hearing aids are now digitally operated and can be adjusted to slowly raise the amplification of sounds so that the person can get used to both the variety and level of sounds that they are no longer familiar with. Digital hearing aids can also be paired up to televisions and computers so people can adjust the volume for their individual needs.
“The younger you notice the hearing loss and the quicker you act is better in the long term because if you leave it until you retire, your brain will find it harder to accept the sounds and some people can find this overwhelming,” says Griffin. Some people can need several visits to an audiologist following the fitting of hearing aids.
However, once you do suspect that you have a hearing loss, it can be difficult to decide whether to go to a commercial supplier of hearing aids, a local audiologist (who works independently similarly to opticians) or to go through the Health Service Executive, whose audiology services have long waiting lists in some regions.
As the national charity for deafness and hearing loss, Chime offers free hearing tests at audiology clinics in 12 locations throughout Ireland. People can also buy hearing aids from audiologists at Chime but their service includes advice and aftercare for anyone who has purchased a hearing aid from them or from other suppliers.
Medical card holders are entitled to free hearing aids. The HSE also offers hearing aid grants of €500 (the grant was €760 before the Government cuts in 2009) per hearing aid through the PRSI system.
Brendan Lennon says that Chime would like to see higher grants for hearing aids – particularly for those getting hearing aids for the first time. “Hearing aids can cost up to €4,000 and there are many low- and middle-income people who need hearing aids who don’t have medical cards. When people get hearing aids earlier, not only is it good for their quality of life but it reduces the health burden on the State,” he says.
Lennon is particularly concerned about older people who buy hearing aids from commercial suppliers and then require extra support in adjusting to using hearing aids. “Eighty per cent of people who go to the commercial suppliers will be happy even if they pay a little over the odds. But the other 20 per cent require therapeutic support to persevere with their hearing aids. And that won’t be part of the typical package offered by commercial operators. It’s some of these people who come to us for extra support.”
Signs that you have hearing loss
1: If you turn up the volume on a television, radio or computer louder than usual to hear what is being said. This is often noticed only when others in your company find the volume too loud.
2: If you have trouble hearing the person you are speaking to on the telephone. Or you ask the person to repeat what he/she said.
3: If you find it difficult to follow a group conversation, particularly if you can’t see the speaker or there are a few people speaking at the same time.
4: If you struggle to hear people speak in noisy environments such as restaurants, clubs or bars.
5: In a work context, an unexplained decline in productivity or work done incorrectly by a staff member who is usually reliable, a sudden lack of confidence or depression can be caused by undiagnosed hearing loss.