This is how your hearing changes as you age
Posted on 6 March 2019
Ever noticed how older people don’t hear so well, while some children hear perfectly well, but never listen? Science shows how our hearing develops – and then slowly degenerates – as we age.
Your hearing journey begins early. “Your ears are already developed in utero,” says Carina Avenant, an audiologist at Mediclinic Medforum. “By 20 weeks, a baby in the womb can already hear lower tones better than higher tones.”
Hearing development gradually continues until birth, and audiologists start testing a baby’s hearing as early as two days after birth. “The results should be normal,” Avenant continues, “but there are many risk factors that can affect a baby’s hearing health, including premature birth, low birth weight, respiratory troubles, jaundice, and even some maternal illnesses like diabetes.”
Without normal hearing abilities, babies and toddlers will struggle to develop normal speech-, language-, and communication abilities. “At about three years of age you would expect a child to start speaking in sentences, and the only way this will happen is if the baby has normal hearing,” Avenant says. If the child does have a hearing impairment, and no neonatal hearing screening test was performed, the parents will usually only notice when their baby is about three years old.
Losing your hearing starts in your 20s
But as we grow, our hearing inevitably starts to deteriorate. “Age-related hearing loss does happen,” says Avenant, “and unfortunately you start ageing from the day you’re born. It’s usually around your mid-20s that the first degeneration of your hearing will really start.” That’s when the microscopic ‘hairs’ in your inner ear start feeling the wear and tear. And even more so if there are complicating factors such as noise exposure or genetic factors.
Most people will only experience age-related hearing loss, but – as Avenant points out – that’s not a simple matter of not being able to hear as you get old. “You have auditory centres in your brain that need auditory stimulation,” she explains. “If you don’t have normal hearing, and you use a hearing aid or similar device, the amplified sound will provide the necessary stimulation for those auditory centres. The brain plays a very important role in your hearing.”
This was highlighted in 2018, when the “Yanny/Laurel” debate went viral. About half (53%) of the people in a Twitter poll said they could hear a man saying ‘Laurel’ in a recording, while the other half (47%) swore he was saying ‘Yanny’. The rumour was that what you heard depended on your age… but the truth is far more complicated. What you heard depended on where you had a hearing loss – i.e. the low or high frequencies or tones.
If you (or maybe your family) have noticed that your hearing has started to deteriorate, see your Mediclinic GP or audiologist as soon as possible. “As with all things, early intervention is always the best,” says Dr Avenant.