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Hearing loss sneaked up on me gradually – I missed bits of conversations here and there, mostly in noisy restaurants, until suddenly I found myself smiling and nodding at punch lines I hadn’t heard and wishing I knew what the heck was going on. That was back in my 30s. A decade later, my family was fed up. “You need me to swab the deck?” “No, I need you to sign a check!” “You fogged up scrunch socks?” “No, I forgot a lunch box.”

I’m far from alone. There’s evidence that hearing loss is on the rise and is striking people at younger ages. “There’s a genetic susceptibility for some people,” explains Dr Laurel A. Christensen, the audiologist who fitted the hearing aids which I’m now wearing. “But it’s being exacerbated by all the noise in modern life.”

Unfortunately, hearing loss comes with significant health risks. A 2019 study published in the journal Geriatrics & Gerontology International found that among seniors 65 and over, hearing loss can cause anxiety and withdrawal from activities and eventually lead to cognitive decline and dementia.

There’s also a higher incidence of depression and even falling – because the auditory system and the balance system are connected, Dr Christensen explains. That’s pretty scary, but there’s good news: people who wear hearing aids for age-related hearing problems have better brain function over time than those who don’t, according to a 2019 study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

Here’s what you need to know about the epidemic of hearing loss and whether you should consider a hearing test.

Hearing loss is rising

Forget the stereotype of the 80 year old who asks you to speak up. An estimated 700,000 New Zealanders are affected by hearing loss due to casual noise exposure, starting decades earlier than the average first-time hearing aid user. What’s more alarming, hearing loss is now beginning as early as adolescence.

“There are statistics that one in five teenagers has hearing loss, probably a 30 per cent increase among teens since the 1990s,” Dr Christensen says. A 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics puts the number closer to 15 per cent but emphasises that it’s a significant cause for concern.

What’s behind the hearing loss epidemic

There are many surprising causes of hearing loss. Hearing loss can be genetic, or it can come from a ruptured eardrum, complications from an ear infection, growth of a bone or tumour, or a build-up of earwax, according to the Mayo Clinic. But it’s earbuds and loud concerts that likely account for the increase in the number of young people exposed to loud sounds, according to the CDC.

And unlike the early Sony Walkman, today’s highfidelity earbuds pump more sound into ears and inflict more damage, according to Dr Christensen. On top of that, ambient noise from trains, buses, highways, leaf blowers and construction work prompt people to crank up the volume. “Noise in the environment is getting louder, and people are turning up to mask it,” she says. “The combination exacerbates problems for everyone.”

Why you may not notice

Without a hearing test, you might not notice mild to moderate loss at first. “If you look at an audiogram, which graphs how you hear at different frequencies, like low or high notes on a piano, most people lose in the high frequencies first,” explains Dr Christensen.

“It affects consonant sounds like s, sh, th – you start to lose those sounds before you lose vowel sounds, so you know people are talking, it’s just not clear what they’re saying. You could be doing just fine when it’s quiet; it’s bringing it outside where there’s some wind or in an environment with a lot of ambient noise that you’re going to have a problem.”

Signs of hearing loss

Significant trouble hearing in restaurants, even in lower levels of noise, is a sure sign, according to Dr Christensen. You might also find yourself frequently asking people to repeat themselves, have difficulty hearing conversations in a crowd, believe that everyone is mumbling, and habitually cranking up the TV.

“Any indication you’re not hearing is a good reason to see an audiologist and try amplification aids,” she says.

How to get your hearing tested

Find a licensed audiologist for a screening – both the New Zealand Audiological Society and New Zealand Hearing websites let you search by region. The audiologist will ask about your health and lifestyle and examine the canal that runs to the eardrum for clues about your hearing health. Next, you’ll listen through headphones to a series of tones to test the sensitivity of your hearing at different frequencies.

The not-so-fun part is the test of noise tolerance, where you raise your hand when the volume becomes painful. I got to see my results immediately on an audiogram, a chart that shows your hearing across the sound spectrum.

The verdict: I have mild to moderate hearing loss (mostly in the higher frequencies) and could use hearing aids.

If there are no audiologists in your area, try New Zealand Hearing’s free five-minute online hearing test at newzealandhearing.co.nz/online-hearing-test.

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