What it feels like… to be diagnosed with hearing loss in your 30s

by | Hearing Health

hearing loss in your 30's

For Lisa* 39, hearing aids were the last thing she thought she’d be shopping for, but making peace with her hearing loss diagnosis changed her life.

Do I have hearing loss?

It started with avoiding a certain restaurant. The one that does incredible pita bread with slow-roast lamb and tzatziki to write home about. Yes, my favourite Greek restaurant with its happy-shouty crowds and bare floors became the last place I’d go when I started to realise something was going on with my ears. I was 38 and every time I was there to catch up with friends, I left feeling lonely and confused because I couldn’t follow the conversation.

The World Health Organisation says hearing loss is any condition that makes it difficult or impossible to hear speech and other sounds. And so it was with me. That difficulty hearing speech was doing my head in. I’d never had problems with my hearing before, and there was no family history of any either, but for some reason, my hearing just wasn’t up to par.

I just slowly began to accept that I couldn’t hear my friends across the table at dinner no matter how hard I leaned in. I missed words or nodded at the wrong thing. And if my phone was in my bag, I’d miss calls and messages too. At home, my flatmate knew there was no point calling out to me from another room. I just wouldn’t be able to hear her. She started storming over and standing in front of me to make sure she wouldn’t have to repeat herself. We’d usually laugh about it but still…

Strangest of all, I was talking much louder than I realised. So much so that my boss was regularly making shush hand gestures at me across the office when I thought I was having a one-on-one conversation with someone at the next desk. Oops!

What causes hearing loss?

Loss of hearing can occur in one or both ears, and while it is usually temporary with say a middle ear infection, it’s otherwise often permanent. Common causes include industrial noise without adequate ear protection and chronic damage from loud sounds focused through ear pieces or headphones. Some people lose hearing due to trauma or as a rare adverse drug reaction to certain medicines including IV antibiotics and chemotherapy. Others experience a fairly standard decline in hearing ability with age, typically after 65.

And some, like me, experience hearing loss with no clear cause. I hadn’t been exposed to loud noise through work. I didn’t wear headphones or airbuds all the time or drive around with the stereo cranked. As for clubs and concerts, I’d probably been to just as many as anyone else – some loud enough to experience ringing ears afterwards, but again, no more than usual I figured.

Audiology test results are instant I was pretty shocked to be told on the spot that I’d lost significant hearing in both ears and required hearing aids. No more wondering, I had hearing loss, and it was time to do something about it. I was far from alone, the audiologist explained, with around 16% of Australians experiencing some kind of hearing loss.

What is sensorineural hearing loss?

My type is sometimes called “cookie bite” sensorineural hearing loss because the test results (known as an audiogram) make a graph that looks like someone has taken a big U-shaped bite out of a cookie. It means I have trouble hearing mid-range frequencies – the kind used in conversation. It differs from age-related hearing loss where high-pitched sounds are typically the hardest to hear.

I won’t pretend this news wasn’t frustrating, confusing and upsetting. I cried at my first hearing aid fitting appointment. I was worried about what other people would think of me with hearing aids. Would they think I was overreacting to my hearing loss diagnosis? I was only 38. I worried about this for as long as it took me to find out I’d have to spend almost $10,000 buying hearing aids. Half up front, the rest in 10 instalments. The cost was a huge shock, especially since my private health insurance covered none of it. Definitely not an overreaction then.

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What’s it like to wear hearing aids?

Hearing loss is Australia’s second most common disability, according to Know Your Noise which has an online hearing test but for me, finding out I had hearing loss was empowering. Because my ability to hear had deteriorated without me realising, I thought skipping noisy cafes was just something I had to do. This made it relatively easy to fall in love with wearing hearing aids. With them in, I could go back to dinner with friends. Without them in, I was missing out. Simple!

But I still had to get my head around the strange sensation of suddenly being able to hear everything again. After all, the treatment for hearing loss is all about making the most of the hearing you do have with hearing aids to amplify the sounds you’re missing out on.

Using the data from my hearing test, the audiologist programmed the digital hearing aids to suit my needs. A few adjustments later and I was hearing at normal levels thanks to a tiny speaker that sits in my ear connected to a microphone and amplifier in a battery-powered case behind the ear. They’re pretty discrete and usually covered by my hair. People rarely ask, and if they do, I give them a look. Like I said, I’m at peace with having hearing aids in my 30s because the alternative was so grim.

Still, getting used to my hearing aids takes some work. When you go from reduced hearing to adding back the frequencies you’ve been missing, it’s a lot of sensory overload. I started wearing them just a few hours a day to help me adjust, and even now, I don’t always wear them at home. I remove them for showers, the gym and sleep but I’d never leave them out at work or while seeing friends. I can follow conversations again, and my inside voice has also made a comeback. No more getting shushed at work for accidentally shouting.

Should I have a hearing test?

If you’re worried about hearing loss, you can also ask for a Medicare-funded hearing test with an audiologist without needing a referral.

You might have hearing loss if:

  • You keep asking people to repeat what they’ve said
  • It’s difficult to make voice calls
  • The volume on your screens and devices is always at the maximum
  • You experience ringing in your ears
  • Group conversations are difficult to follow

Further information

WHO https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss

Types of hearing loss https://hearingservices.gov.au/wps/portal/hso/site/eligibility/abouthearing/hearing_loss

Around 1 in 6 Australians experience hearing loss. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/hearing-loss

Hearing loss is Australia’s second most common disability. https://knowyournoise.nal.gov.au/

What are the symptoms of hearing loss? https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/hearing-loss

Hearing aid parts https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hearing-loss/in-depth/hearing-aids/art-20044116