Already having trouble hearing in your 40s? Tips on how to stop the decline

Khoo Bee Khim

CNA – If your refrain in conversations these days is “huh?”, you might just be suffering from hearing loss or the beginning of it – even though you’re only in your 40s. Yup, it’s payback for all those rebellious teenage years spent listening to loud Nirvana and Metallica tracks on your earphones.

Being hard of hearing is not something you’ll only have to confront later on in life. Experts told CNA Lifestyle it can start much earlier, no thanks to a couple of factors.

First, your body’s physiological performance, including your hearing, peaks between the ages of 25 and 35. After that, it’s a downhill ride as your body gradually deteriorates, said Dr Paul Lock, an associate consultant specialising in ear, nose and throat (ENT) at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

The older you get, the worse your hearing becomes, he said.

Second, the cumulative exposure to noise (such as working with loud machinery) and the intensity of the noise exposure (from music players or rock concerts) can account for and accelerate hearing loss, said Dr Lock.

Other than the exposure to loud noises, recurrent ear infection is another big contributing factor to hearing loss in patients, he observed. “Recurrent infections are often caused by the digging of the ears, which, coupled with the humid weather, promotes ear infections. On top of that, ear digging can perforate the tympanic membrane, which will further decrease one’s hearing.”

HUH? I HAVE HEARING LOSS?

Hearing loss is a gradual process and it is difficult to quantify the hearing loss year on year as it is not a linear process. “Studies have shown that hearing loss is accelerated when you are elderly. However, prevention needs to start many years before the onset of hearing loss,” said Dr Lock.

So how do you know your hearing is not as sharp as before? Here’s a tip from Penuel Lau, an audiologist with TTSH’s ENT Department: You might miss the high-pitched ring tone of your mobile phone or the microwave oven.

During conversations, you might also mishear or misunderstand words. “You may be frequently asking people to repeat themselves or struggle to catch what others are saying,” he said. Or you find yourself needing to turn up the volume of the television, music player and other entertainment devices.

If those scenarios ring a bell to you, it’s not too late to do something now. Here are tips to safeguard your hearing in these common everyday situations.

WHEN LISTENING TO MUSIC

It is not about using earphones or headphones per se, said Lau, but rather, the volume you’re listening at and how good the devices are at blocking out surrounding noises. The better they are at noise cancellation, the less likely you’ll crank up the volume. For that matter, it’s not a good idea to turn up your music to drown out inconsiderate passengers’ loud conversations or video.

For earphones, it could be as simple as using rubber or foam ear buds to get a good seal of your ear canals, said Lau. Headphone users can opt for ear pads that completely cover the outer ears to better block out environmental sounds. Devices that offer noise-cancelling features are good options, too, he said.

As for the volume, keep it to 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the maximum volume as a rule of thumb, said Lau.

“Another way to determine the volume level is to first listen to your earphones or headphones in a very quiet place,” he recommended. “Set the volume at a level that you find quite loud. The next time you are using your device, you should not exceed this level.”

WORKING FROM HOME WITH NOISY CHILDREN

Kids can get over-excited and make a lot of noise when they’re playing. “If you find that your children are too noisy at home, try to work in a different room from them,” suggested Lau. Not an option for you? Consider getting some ear plugs to block out some of your children’s noises.

WATCHING TV AT HOME

Different TV sets have different ranges of volume, so an eight on your home TV may not sound the same as an eight on your friend’s TV.

To ensure your TV’s volume is not turned up too high, ask your family members for their take, said Lau. If you need to shout in order to be heard or cannot understand your family members even at arm’s length away, the sound is too loud and may damage your hearing over time, according to the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CONSTRUCTION NOISE

Using ear plugs can help to block out the construction noise below your block or the renovation noise above you. Close the windows and doors if you can.

“The challenge with most renovation noise is that the sound travels through the walls of the entire building,” said Lau. “For such cases, your only solution is to use ear plugs. Soundproofing the walls of your flat would also help to reduce construction and renovation noise, but this option is generally costly.”

The National Environment Agency website provides details on the maximum permissible noise levels for construction work.

LOUD MUSIC AND NOISE IN PUBLIC PLACES

Sometimes, the music playing over the cafe’s or restaurant’s speakers can be so loud, you can’t hear your friends. In such scenarios, check with the establishment if they are able to turn down the volume of the music, suggested Lau. Or you can move away from the speakers to a quieter section.

For a quieter evening out, call ahead to enquire, recommended the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) website. Ask to be seated in a quieter area of the restaurant such as a table away from the espresso machines, open kitchens or larger tables.

It also helps to choose restaurants that have incorporated sound absorbers into their design, such as tablecloths, carpeting, plants, upholstered chairs and wider spaces between tables.

AREN’T HEARING AIDS FOR THE ELDERLY?

“Hearing loss is often underdiagnosed as it is an invisible disability,” said Dr Lock.

“People tend to ignore or look for ways to work around the disability, such as lip reading or reducing their levels of communication.” You should seek medical help when there is a difference in hearing between your ears, he added.

For instance, things sound a lot louder on one side than the other. Or you might find your communication hindered.

“This often comes in the form of not hearing clearly in noisy environments, requiring your family members to repeat their words, or regular episodes of miscommunication.”

Whether you need hearing aids or not is not entirely dependent on your hearing levels, but your hearing requirements.

“Paradoxically, a young working executive who needs to attend multiple meetings or field many calls might need hearing aids much more than an elderly, who only meets his friends socially occasionally,” said Dr Lock.

You’re probably thinking: It’s embarrassing to be using hearing aids when I’m only in my 40s! Many people think that hearing aids are for the grey and elderly but that should not be so, he said.

“Just like how spectacles are accepted as visual aids for all ages, hearing aids should also be seen as devices that aid in our senses for all ages.”

Moreover, these devices’ connectivity has improved significantly, allowing you to stream your TV, laptop and your mobile devices directly to your hearing aids, thus allowing you to communicate better, he said.