Why do we need to hear?
As one of our most important senses, the ability to hear enables us to connect to the world for many very important, even vital, reasons.
Most importantly, hearing connects us to people enabling us to communicate in a way that none of our other senses can achieve. As the famed 20th-century activist and educator, Helen Keller, once said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people”.
Although it is true that the greater the hearing loss, the more severely our ability to communicate is affected, the impact of milder forms of hearing loss should never be underestimated or ignored.
Hearing for communicating with people
Our ability to communicate with other people is heavily dependent on our ability to understand speech which is one of the most complex sounds we have to listen to. Without good hearing in both ears, understanding what a person is saying needs more concentration and can be very tiring, especially if several people are talking or there’s background noise.
Misunderstanding what’s been said can be very frustrating for both listener and speaker and can make socialising with friends and family gatherings a difficult, far less pleasurable experience. Too often, this leads to avoiding such situations or increasing reliance on a partner or friend with better hearing.
Relationships can quickly begin to suffer with the strain of trying to cope with hearing loss even to the point of a complete breakdown in communication when a hearing loss is allowed to go too far before seeking professional help and support.
Hearing for experiencing sounds around us
As important as communicating with other people certainly is, hearing matters for all the pleasure it can bring and the difference it can make to our quality of life. Listening to music, television and radio, going to the cinema or theatre, attending a place of worship, going to meetings to learn or simply for pleasure as well as listening to the sounds of nature can all be affected by the state of hearing.
Whilst we are all individuals and have different interests and needs, these sounds are part of enjoying life to the fullest extent. Yet, how easily the enjoyment of the world of sound can be spoilt or made impossible by unassisted hearing loss which in many cases could so easily and effectively benefit from hearing technologies and personalised, professional support.
Hearing and personal safety
The dependence on good hearing for personal safety shouldn’t be taken for granted. We are often more likely to hear a potential threat to our safety before it becomes visible, if it can be seen at all. Crossing the road on foot, driving a vehicle, responding to fire, smoke or intruder alarms at home, in the workplace or public buildings, and awareness of another person approaching who may mean us harm are all part of the daily, even constant, need for good hearing to protect our personal safety and physical wellbeing.
We also need balanced hearing to know the direction from which a sound is coming. Anyone with better hearing in one ear than the other always has greater difficulty localising sound and judging how far away it is.
Very unbalanced hearing such as no hearing in one ear makes any sense of direction for sound impossible and could be a possible safety risk in some situations.
Hearing and working
The proportion of people with hearing loss who are unemployed is higher than in the general population. Untreated hearing loss can have a number of consequences in the workplace and many of those in work who are struggling with hearing loss unnecessarily experience reduced opportunities for promotion or work at a level below their skills, knowledge and experience.
Unfortunately, some people won’t disclose that they have hearing loss and use hearing aids. Trying to keep a hearing loss secret can be a mistake – employers are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments for those with any disability, and your working life could be made easier by being open with an employer about any special needs.
Working life will be much less stressful if your hearing loss is managed professionally and the most appropriate technology prescribed, fitted and routinely worn. If financial assistance is needed to purchase equipment at work, the Access to Work scheme may be able to assist.
Hearing and mental health
In recent years, a considerable amount of scientific evidence has been published highlighting the connection between hearing loss and mental health. It’s clear that there is an association between unassisted hearing loss and cognitive decline and dementia. Why this should be the case is still not clear and much research is being undertaken to try and establish how and why hearing loss and cognitive health are connected.
Important research findings published in The Lancet in 2017 stated that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if people managed a number of lifestyle factors in midlife (between ages 40 to 65) including hearing loss.
Unmanaged hearing loss adds to the brain’s cognitive load and can lead to social isolation and depression, good reasons to care for your hearing and watch for signs that your hearing may be changing (in just the same way as you’d care for eyesight and dental health). Particularly after the age of 40, hearing tests should be as routine a part of healthcare as sight tests and dental checks.
The early signs of hearing loss
The signs that hearing may be changing vary with individuals and with different lifestyles but these are the most common:
- Increasing difficulty in understanding speech in noisy backgrounds
- Following conversation needs more concentration (and possibly lipreading) especially when several people are talking
- Needing a higher volume setting for television listening but not always making speech clearer
- When out shopping, not always understanding a shop assistant or at a supermarket checkout
- Difficulty hearing others clearly when in a car or using public transport
- People who know you well remark about your hearing not being as good as it used to be
It’s tempting to dismiss signs like these, but both you and your family will find life easier if you take a few simple steps to assess your hearing.