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Many Canadians experience hearing loss and don’t know it. Here’s how to prevent and treat it

The Dose25:41How can I prevent and treat hearing loss?

Martha Perusse still remembers the day two decades ago when she wore hearing aids for the first time, at the age of 48. 

“I picked them up and went right back to work. I was walking around the building and I thought, ‘This has to be wrong,'” said Perusse, 69, who lives in Montreal and is a peer mentor for Hear Quebec, a non-profit that provides programs and services to those affected by hearing loss.

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing with the new devices: a hum from the overhead lights; her pants rubbing together on her legs; people in faraway offices talking on the phone. 

Perusse is among the 37 per cent of Canadian adults who have hearing loss. Many more Canadians over age 40 have high-frequency hearing loss and aren’t aware of it.

Experts say that losing your hearing and not getting that loss treated can lead to social isolation, loneliness and even cognitive decline. Hearing aids can help, and there are ways to prevent hearing loss in the first place. 

Martha Perusse with her husband, Bernie. She has worn hearing aids for 20 years. (Submitted by Martha Perusse)

Hearing loss can lead to social isolation

Untreated hearing loss can lead to relationship issues and social isolation — a major problem for older adults, said Dr. Paul Mick, an otolaryngologist and associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. 

“They may avoid social situations because they’re having a hard time understanding what people are saying and they find that very embarrassing.” 

Perusse has seen that happen first-hand to the people she mentors through Hear Quebec. 

“It’s amazing how many times people just drop off their friendships because they don’t understand them and they find it too frustrating,” Perusse said. 

“It’s really important to preserve your brain and preserve the relationships that you have.” 

How to protect your hearing

It’s essential for adults over the age of 30 to check their hearing every few years, and more frequently once you hit 50, according to audiologist Emma LeBlanc, co-owner of the Munk Hearing Centre clinics at Toronto General Hospital. 

“Just like we go to the dentist routinely, just like we go to the eye doctor routinely, we really should be checking our hearing,” LeBlanc told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose.

A hand holds a receiver-in-canal hearing aid next to a woman's air, with the earpiece resting on her ear.
The sooner you start wearing hearing aids after hearing loss, the easier it will be to adapt to them, experts say. (Iurii Chornysh/Shutterstock)

You can get a hearing test from an audiologist.

Experts recommend wearing earplugs whenever you’re exposed to loud sounds, including concerts, moving the lawn or using power tools. 

Those can range from simple foam earplugs from the drugstore to custom-made earplugs designed for musicians, said LeBlanc. 

Listening to music at high volumes can lead to hearing loss, and experts recommend using an app to limit the volume on your phone. 

Noise-cancelling headphones can also prevent unsafe listening, said LeBlanc, so that you don’t need to turn your music up to compensate for a noisy environment such as a bus or subway. 

That workout could protect your hearing 

Regular exercise could also help your hearing. 

“Hearing isn’t a passive physiological process. It’s actually highly metabolic. The inner ear is sort of like a battery that’s constantly recharging itself,” said Mick. 

A man does squats wearing exercise clothes on an exercise mat in his living room.
Regular exercise could help you retain your hearing, some research has shown. (antoniodiaz/Shutterstock)

The inner ear converts sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain, explained Mick, a process that takes a lot of energy. 

“There’s a lot of blood flow through the inner ear. So anything that affects cardiovascular health, it’s likely going to affect the inner ear,” said Mick, who has done research into the association between cardiovascular risk factors and hearing. 

Studies have shown that people with heart disease are more likely to experience greater rates of hearing loss.

Adapting to hearing aids 

It took Perusse a few months to get used to her hearing aids. For some of the people she mentors who are new to hearing aids, she said it can can take longer to adjust.  

There’s a definite reluctance from some people to admit they have hearing loss, said Perusse — or to wear their hearing aids if they have them.

“That’s the danger, I think, of not getting hearing aids — is that your world just gets quieter and quieter,” she said.  

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Hearing aids are now available south of the border in such stores as Best Buy and WalMart for as little as $200 US per pair.

Experts say the sooner you start wearing hearing aids after losing your hearing, the easier it will be to adapt to them. 

“Hearing aids are not like glasses, so you don’t just put them on and go about your business,” said LeBlanc.

“If you’re in a group setting, the hearing aids are going to increase the volume of everything. And so we’re really working with your brain with hearing aids,” she said. 

“The more people wear their hearing aid, the more they get used to their hearing aid, the more successful they are going to be long-term in these more complex environments.”

There are different kinds of hearing aids — depending on the type of hearing loss and people’s esthetic preferences — including ones with a piece that goes behind the ear, and others that fit only within the ear itself. 

‘Life can be so much easier’

Though hearing loss is more common in older adults, more than one billion young people between ages 12 and 34 are at risk for hearing loss because of unsafe listening practices, according to the World Health Organizarion. 

Those practices include spending time in loud bars or clubs, and listening to music too loudly on your phone. 

Ashley Mayoff, 25, serves as the young adult representative on the board of Hear Quebec, and understands the struggles of young people with hearing loss. 

“Growing up, we’re just taught that we need to be ashamed of it and it’s something that we have to hide,” said Mayoff, who was born with hearing loss in both ears. 

Mayoff has worn hearing aids all her life and for the past 10 years has had two bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHA). 

A BAHA, a type of hearing aid that conducts sound by vibration through the skull, is attached to a small post surgically placed behind the ear. 

Mayoff’s advice to other young people with hearing loss? Get the treatment you need and access the services that are available. 

“Life can be so much easier. It doesn’t have to be so hard, where you can’t hear and you struggle and you feel alone,” said Mayoff. 


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