Picture: Getty Images

Can't see too well? You will probably head straight for the optometrist for prescription glasses. Can't hear so well? You will wait for an average of seven years to seek help.

Significant hearing loss now affects one in six Australians and if they turned up sooner for a hearing test, they could avoid years of isolation by wearing one of the snazzy, small aids that are now on the market.

Bec Bennett, audiologist and manager of audiological services for the Ear Science Institute of Australia and Lions Hearing Clinics, said people were often shy to talk about their hearing aids, despite the benefits. "In fact, some of our clients purchase invisible-style hearing aids and their own husbands and children don't even know that they wear them each day," she said.

Hearing loss left undetected or untreated could result in a tendency to dominate conversation or appear aloof or rude in social situations, increased frustration and communication breakdowns, feelings of low self-esteem, being accused of selective hearing and avoidance of social situations.

According to Janette Thorburn, principal audiologist with Australian Hearing, people are embarrassed about hearing loss and the thought of wearing a hearing aid.

But the delay in having a hearing test and an aid fitted often means that they start to withdraw and give up some of their social activities. "They stop playing bowls, they stop going to their club, so it means they don't keep their brains as active," she said. "Also physically they are not as active, so they become less fit and there can be health impacts."

Ms Thorburn said people who noticed they were losing their hearing should go immediately for a hearing test before the loss "changed their life".

The stigma attached to hearing aids was a hangover from past days, when they whistled and were not effective or attractive, but that was changing.

"Most hearing aids these days are very small," she said. "You just virtually can pop them in and not have to bother about them. Modern hearing aids are looked upon as communication devices because we are getting more used to wearing little earpieces for our phone, for our music player."

The choice of hearing aids now is so wide that Australian Hearing has a range of more than 500. "We program them on a computer and they are set to a prescription for your hearing loss," Ms Thorburn said.

It is a far cry from 20 years ago, when there were only 10 to 20 hearing aids available. "We used to use a screwdriver to change the settings," Ms Thorburn said.

Age is one of the causes of deterioration in hearing. Sixty per cent of people aged over 60 and 70 per cent of those over 70 have hearing loss. The other main cause is noise and the worrying trend is that younger people are at risk of losing their hearing because of their propensity to listen to loud music.

"We are seeing teenagers who have spent long periods of time with their music player up on full who have noise-induced loss," Ms Thorburn said. "Damage to hearing due to noise exposure is cumulative. This means the higher the noise level and the longer the exposure, the greater the harm."

The West Australian

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