Hearing loss in the ageing population

Over 6.5 million of the UK’s over 65 population are thought to have some degree of age-related hearing loss. In 2005 the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now called Action On Hearing Loss), an organisation working on behalf of the UK’s hard of hearing, published this number after conducting a comprehensive survey.

If you notice signs of hearing loss or a family member you care for is showing such signs it is important to investigate further. Hearing loss left unaddressed can lead to numerous other issues, such as withdrawal from friends and family or anxiety or embarrassment about coping with social interaction. All of which contribute to a reduced quality of life.

In this article we examine signs of age related hearing loss, to describe some of the physical changes that contribute to hearing loss and what modern technology has to offer in order to overcome the effects of hearing loss.

Signs Of Hearing Loss

Age-relate hearing loss or presbycusis, to use its medical term, does not happen over night. Deterioration in hearing ability can take place over many years, with changes starting as early as one’s 40s. Because the changes are so gradual, the effects may go un-noticed for years.

These are some of the common difficulties reported by those with age-related hearing loss:

  • Struggling to hear within background noise
  • Having to have words or sentences repeated
  • Having the TV turned up more than others in the same room
  • Mens’ voices are easier to hear than womens’ voices
  • Feeling exhausted after having conversations
  • Inability to hear, or confusion over high-pitched speech sounds such as “s” and “th”

Why Does Age Related Hearing Loss Occur?

The human ability to hear is aided by tiny cells, known as hair cells, inside the inner part of the ear. Their job is to pick up waves of sound and to translate these waves into signals for the brain to interpret. Hearing loss occurs when these tiny hair cells inside the ear are damaged or die. Because hair cells do not regrow, hearing loss due to hair cell deterioration is permanent.

There is no known single cause for age-related hearing loss. Most commonly, it is caused by changes in the inner ear that occur as you grow older. However, your genes and exposure to loud noise (such as from rock concerts or music headphones) may play a large role.

In most cases the resultant hearing loss is the same on both ears.

Treatments and Options

Because age-related hearing loss is irreversible, there is no instant medical cure. However, modern technology offers various products to help manage the condition. The first step is to have a diagnostic hearing test at your local hearing centre or by vising your GP and getting a referral to a local NHS audiology department.

The most popular solution is to try hearing aids. These days almost all these devices are digital in terms of their sound processing, and work amplify incoming sound in a way that is comfortable for the wearer. Hearing aids come in a variety of different styles and are desgned to fit either in the ear, or over the ear. Hearing aids are available privately or from the NHS. In fact, the UK is one of only a handful of countries providing free hearing aids through the National Health Service; though the range is limited and a waiting list may apply. Obtaining a hearing aid via the NHS usually involves a number of steps beginning with a referral from a GP and then two or more appointments at the Audiology department.

Hopefully despite the ever-growing funding pressure the NHS will continue to provide this service. Other useful aids which can work in conjunction with or alongside hearing aids are ALDs or Assistive Listening Devices; which include amplified landline phones or mobiles, alerting devices for telephone ringers, and wireless TV listening systems. Most of these ALDs are not available through the NHS.


Joan-McKechnie-Hearing-DirectBio: Article by Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hearing Direct a company that offers assistive listening devices from telephones for the deaf to VAT exempt hearing aids. Written for Enable magazine.

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