Health

How to prevent age-related hearing loss

Becoming deaf as you age is not inevitable. Yes, you can intervene to prevent age-related hearing loss, explains health writer Paula Goodyer.

Can anything help prevent the hearing loss that affects around 65% of people over 60?

Quite a lot, it turns out - and the same good habits that can help protect our hearing can fight off many other health problems too.

“There’s this acceptance that hearing loss is inevitable as we get older but there are things we can do early in life to preserve hearing,” says Professor Bamini Gopinath of the Faculty of Medicine Health and Human Sciences at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

Her research, published this year, looked at the lifestyle factors influencing age-related hearing loss - and how understanding them can help protect our hearing as we age.  

“We know that keeping blood vessels healthy is really important for our hearing because they help maintain good blood flow to the ears.  This is why problems like diabetes and heart disease are often linked to hearing loss because they can disrupt blood flow to the ears,” she explains.

Oxidative stress - the unseen enemy

One of the main threats to our hearing is a hidden problem called oxidative stress that damages tissues in the body and contributes to many chronic diseases - and even to the ageing process itself.  

Oxidative stress happens when there are too many molecules called free radicals circulating in the body and too few antioxidants to balance them out. But there’s a lot we can do to prevent oxidative stress.

A diet high in antioxidants...

There’s a reason why experts urge us to ‘eat the rainbow’.

“A high-quality diet such as the Mediterranean diet  that includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, with olive oil, is a rich source of antioxidants and micronutrients that can reduce oxidative stress,” says Professor Gopinath.

Some studies also suggest that vitamins A, C and E and the mineral magnesium can help prevent oxidative stress - but diets high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt and low in fibre can increase it.  

…and eating fish

Some research has linked eating fish regularly (2 to 4 times a week) to a lower risk of hearing loss.  

“Fish are a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids which can reduce oxidative stress,” she adds. “Although it’s not clear if there’s the same benefit from taking omega-3 supplements.”  

More movement, better hearing

“There’s always been a link between high levels of physical activity and a lower risk of hearing loss - and again I think it has a lot to do with maintaining good blood flow to the ears, “ she says.

Exercise is also likely to reduce oxidative stress. Some studies suggest that aerobic exercise (like running, walking,  cycling and swimming) also help maintain our  mitochondria which are like tiny ‘power packs’ in our cells.

Oxidative damage to our mitochondria might kick off the progressive loss of hearing cells, according to some researchers.  

Keep the kilos off

Regular exercise will also help maintain a healthy weight - and a number of studies now link being overweight and obesity to a higher risk of hearing loss.

Sshh! Turn down the volume  

Of all the steps we can take to protect our hearing,  avoiding loud noise across the lifespan is the most important says Professor Gopinath.  

Too much exposure from music (concerts, pubs/clubs, the gym, personal music devices), power tools, workplaces, construction sites and using firearms can disrupt our hearing in different ways - by damaging the delicate   cells that help us hear, as well as reducing blood flow to the cochlea, the little spiral tube in our ear that transmits sound to the brain.  

You can check out your own risk of noise exposure and get good advice on protecting your hearing online at Know your Noise.

Be aware of chemicals that damage hearing

Some industries, including painting, construction and firefighting - along with some medications - risk exposure to ototoxic chemicals that can damage hearing.

In the workplace these include solvents, heavy metals and asphyxiants (e.g. acrylonitrile, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide).

Some medications including anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs can also contain these chemicals - although it may be more difficult to avoid these.

Avoid cigarette smoke

Smoking increases the risk of hearing loss -one large study of more than 2000 people aged over 50 found that current smokers were 61% more likely to have hearing loss.  

Some studies suggest passive smoking can raise the risk too. But quitting smoking boosts the concentration of protective antioxidants in the body and some research has found that former smokers who remained smoke-free for more than 5 years reduced their risk to that of non-smokers.  

Can hearing exercises make a difference?

Speech- in- noise exercises aim to boost listening skills for people with hearing loss. They involve practising listening to conversations or recorded speech in noisy environments, and can be done via auditory training programs.

“But although some studies suggest that people’s listening skills improve  while they’re participating in the exercises, it’s not clear whether the improvement carries over to real life situations, “ says  Professor Harvey Dillon from Macquarie University’s Department of Linguistics.

“But they may give people more confidence and that can be helpful in social situations. “

Auditory training isn’t routinely recommended by audiologists in Australia for people with hearing loss, but it may be useful for anyone using a hearing aid for the first time, he adds.

“Typically people lose hearing gradually over 10 years, and when they first use a hearing aid everything sounds very different - but auditory training might help people adjust more quickly to the different ways things sound.”

What’s the link between hearing loss and dementia?

Although it’s unlikely that dementia is a cause of hearing loss,  there’s good evidence that hearing loss increases the risk of  all types of dementia, says Professor Henry Brodaty of the Centre for Healthy Ageing at the University of NSW.  

The reason is still unclear but one theory is that the social isolation that can come with hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline.  

“But there is some good news - research has found that people who wear hearing aids reduce their risk of dementia,” he adds.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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