It happens gradually. The missed word. The misunderstandings. Straining to hear the TV news or the dialogue in a movie.

Sadly, hearing loss is often misinterpreted as confusion, insensitivity, sometimes even dementia. And it is not just the afflicted who suffer. The spouses of people with severe hearing loss find themselves isolated when their partner stops talking to them and becomes detached from life.

Causes of hearing loss

In addition to aging, hearing loss may be caused by ear wax buildup, extended exposure to very loud noise, viral or bacterial infections, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumours, some medications and heredity. A number of these causes can be treated and hearing may be partially restored. If left untreated, hearing loss can get worse.

We live in a noisy world and it’s worth noting that over time the noise of construction jack-hammers, lawn mowers, snow-blowers, motorcycles and loud music can damage the inner ear and cause permanent hearing loss. Protect yourself by wearing earplugs and lowering the volume on your iPod, especially when wearing ear buds. Encourage your children and grandchildren to do likewise.

Two common types of age-related hearing loss:

Presbycusis (prez-bee-KYOO-sis) is a gradual loss that tends to run in families and affects hearing in both ears.

Tinnitus is a ringing, roaring or hissing noise in your ears and can be a sign of other health problems, such as high blood pressure or allergies. It may be permanent, come and go or suddenly disappear. Its cause is unclear. For some, music masks the sounds caused by the condition. Certain medications and avoiding smoking, alcohol and loud noises may also ease tinnitus.

Signs of hearing loss

See your doctor if you:

  • Have difficulty hearing over the telephone
  • Strain to follow a conversation with two or more people at a time
  • Need to turn the volume of your TV so high it disturbs others
  • Find background noise impairs your hearing
  • Have difficulty distinguishing words and hearing what women and children are saying

Sudden deafness is a medical emergency that may be cured if treated promptly. If this occurs, see a doctor immediately.

Sources of help

If you suspect hearing loss, see your family physician. If necessary, he or she will refer you to an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist (otolaryngologist) for a thorough examination. Your ENT specialist may arrange a hearing test with an audiologist. An audiologist can also help you choose the best hearing aid for your condition and teach you how to use it.

Tips for speaking to someone with a hearing loss:

  • Face the person and speak clearly — no mumbling.
  • Don’t talk too fast, hide your mouth, eat or chew gum.
  • If possible, speak where the lighting is good and background noise is minimal.
  • Use facial expressions or gestures that offer clues to what you are saying.
  • Repeat yourself and explain if necessary, using different words.
  • When talking in a group, face the hearing-impaired person as much as possible.
  • Be patient — if you sense someone has lost the thread of your conversation, stop and explain what you have said.

If you are hearing-impaired:

  • Don’t be embarrassed — let people know you have a hearing problem.
  • Ask people to face you and speak more slowly and clearly.
  • If people shout, calmly tell them they don’t need to shout.
  • Pay attention to facial expressions or gestures, as well as the words.
  • Ask the speaker to repeat anything you missed.
  • Wear your hearing aid.

Listening to the sound of music, a loved one’s voice and the laughter of children are among the great joys of life. If you’re experiencing signs of hearing loss, be sure to seek professional help so you won’t miss out on the beautiful sounds of our world.