The number-one cause of deafness is probably quite an obvious one: age.
Most people’s hearing begins to decline from 30 onwards; by 60, more than 50% will have some degree of hearing loss, and by 80, most will be significantly heard of hearing.
But deafness is also something that can affect anybody, at any stage of life, and some of the causes might surprise you.
“One in six people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing,” says a spokesperson for the charity Action on Hearing Loss.
“Most are older people who are gradually losing their hearing as part of the ageing process. But hearing loss can result from damage to the auditory part of the brain, with infection or inflammation of the middle ear, usually caused by viral or bacterial infection, also causing hearing loss. Prolonged and repeated exposure to loud noise – whether at work or when listening to loud music – can damage peoples hearing, and lead to tinnitus.”
While many of us happily regularly clean our ears with buds without, seemingly, ever experiencing problems, numerous experts warn we shouldn’t. Ear wax is important, helping keep debris, like hair and dirt, from making its way deep into the canal.
Excess wax should be flushed out naturally (or can be removed by a medical professional if it’s problematic), and cotton buds can cause it to compact, putting you at risk of blockages and infections – reports suggest there are thousands of cases in the UK each year. The associated hearing loss is usually temporary, but sometimes, permanent damage can occur.
There are a number of drugs for which hearing loss can be a side-effect, including certain types of antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and chemotherapy.
Thankfully, for many, these aren’t medications we should frequently encounter, but certain aminoglycoside antibiotics, used to treat very serious and life-threatening infections, unfortunately have high links with hearing loss, which can range from mild and temporary to permanent and severe.
Earlier this year, scientists from Stanford University reported that research into developing better versions of these drugs was progressing well.
When exasperated parents tell their kids to “turn that TV/video game/stereo down – or you’ll go deaf”, they really do have a point. We’ve all heard examples of people developing hearing loss after years of working in a noisy environment, like nightclubs, building sites, music concerts.
Well, those warnings about not listening to your music/TV too loudly are vitally important too. Loud noise causes damage to the tiny hair cells that are integral to hearing. The louder the noise, and the longer you’re exposed to it, the greater the damage. Worst of all, it’s irreversible – so take care and turn down the volume. If you the sound’s at an uncomfortable level, blocks out all background noise, or leaks through your headphones so the whole train carriage can hear it, it’s too loud.
Sometimes, other illnesses and health conditions can lead to hearing loss. Viral infections, like mumps and measles, may affect the inner ear and auditory nerve, and hearing loss can also occur with meningitis, multiple sclerosis and stroke.
Though the link isn’t entirely clear, research suggests people with type 2 diabetes have higher rates of hearing loss too. Speak to your GP, nurse of pharmacist for advice on managing diabetes.
Sudden unexplained hearing loss
It’s believed that every year in the UK, a few thousand people will experience sudden hearing loss (classified as happening instantly or over the course of a few days), usually in one or sometimes both ears.
While hearing sometimes returns, in some cases it’s permanent, but this is rare. Sometimes causes might be possible to pinpoint, and they may be linked to some of the factors mentioned above, and for some people, sudden hearing loss follows an extreme psychological stress or trauma. However, it can be a complete mystery too. It should be treated as a medical emergency, so see a doctor immediately.
To find out more about the causes of hearing loss, and how to protect your hearing, visit Action on Hearing Loss and the NHS.