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Blog: Tinnitus & age – What we do know & how we can support

Tinnitus currently affects around 15% of the world’s population, a small, but still significant percentage of that is severely debilitated by the condition. Debilitation on such a level that it affects the ability to sleep and basic everyday tasks, which most take for granted, are a common hurdle to overcome.

This condition is sadly incurable in today’s world and with little education and funds to research further – a cure becomes less likely every year. Similar to hearing loss, tinnitus becomes habitual with age. It is becoming a common thing to diagnose older people with tinnitus when they already have a hearing loss.  This suggests that the two conditions are linked and that they are tackling both at the same time. Let’s discuss the causes, how it affects the older generation and how we can support them on their tinnitus journey.

 The positive shift

Over the years we have found that more and more of our older patients who have tinnitus, although aware and distracted by the condition, seem to be less likely to see their mood change in result of it. In some cases, they have stated that they refuse to succumb to social withdrawal, or they try to not let it determine their levels of concentration. A more proactive approach, than reactive.

This may be due to them having to deal with other or a variety of health conditions and issues, which causes them to not be identified by their tinnitus. Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Having a more positive outlook on tinnitus is generally a good perspective mentally – but this might deter them to seek treatment or support. Not acknowledging the severity of the condition, due to other health issues, is detrimental to mental health and leading a life of quality.

This is why I am such an advocate in patient and family centred care. Someone who dedicates time to developing a strong relationship with someone who sufferers from tinnitus – whether that be an audiologist, family or friend – can make all the difference. If you ask the right questions and openly offer support on a relative level, you can look after their wellbeing and all aspects of their hearing healthcare. The patient-centred-care approach is the difference between a good audiologist and a bad one.

The realistic perspective

Although, it has been positive to see a shift in elder patients’ perspective and coping mechanisms to tinnitus – I know that the more realistic view is that tinnitus has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the elder communities’ lives. Ultimately affecting sleep, emotional state and finding reaching out for support a struggle. Luckily, people are becoming more aware of the condition through educated exposure and an increase in organisations with a dedication to help – in person or online.

Similar to most ‘invisible’ illnesses, coping and living with tinnitus is an epic challenge to face every day. What you can’t see is hard to convince, so that’s why early support, diagnosis and recognising there is a problem is so vital. Some of the elder generations are struggling with this condition in silence and it can have a huge impact on their levels of anxiety that, sadly, opens the door to depression.

Support and understanding

As the world begins to gain more of an insight into tinnitus – the world is in turn learning to relate and understand. More and more non-profitable organisations, like Hearing Link, are dedicated to assisting the older generation with support and advice about tinnitus and other hearing-related issues. Ensuring that they are consistently educating, spreading important messages and being driven to find new ways of being more accessible online to all ages.

But, the main rock of support starts from home with family and friends – for it is such a terrible and distressing thing to view a loved one suffer from tinnitus.  Seeing how the condition cripples and restricts them in so many ways, results in the observer feeling powerless. The ‘ringing of the ears’ feels rather like torture and the inner noise affects sleep pattern and the ability to function normally. There is no right or wrong when it comes to tinnitus relief – but it is important to know that you are not powerless, and you can help.  So, how can we effectively support our loved ones?

Here are a few simple and basic tools:

Research and patience

As we all know, we fear what we don’t understand or comprehend. If we dedicate time to research tinnitus, we can gain a better understanding and ultimately fully empathise. At this time, there is no cure, but if we comprehend the severity of the condition and ‘get it’ – we can truly make a difference.

The tinnitus journey isn’t an easy one and it only gets worse with age. It may take time for the sufferer to realise the need for support and accept help initially. This condition brings a vulnerability to the surface and with that comes some level of mistrust.

Initiate a conversation and encourage them to open up about their difficulties, so you can relate and find ways to help them to cope – especially in a hard episode. The more understanding you develop the more genuine you will come across and with time trust will flourish.

Stay calm and be the distraction

Having tinnitus in your life means you live with huge amounts of anxiety and stress that, in turn, causes the severity of the condition to increase. A constant battle that is hard to manage. Suggesting relaxing techniques will relieve their mental and physical wellbeing.

Encourage them to get involved in relaxing past times and hobbies like aromatherapy, massage, listening to soft music, using breathing techniques and practising yoga and meditation. Checking in with their mental health is vital and this is why a lot of patients regularly practice yoga and meditation. If their body is more relaxed, then their mind is sure to follow suit.

Try to mask the sound of their tinnitus with distractions. When they are experiencing difficult symptoms, seek a feeling of solace for them with background noise. It is important to remember that this method might not work if the sufferer has combined hearing loss and a high level of tinnitus. Although a simple technique, it offers short-term relief that really works.  A useful go-to aid that can be implemented daily and is easy to access.

I would recommend sounds of nature, white noise, podcasts, radio shows and audiobooks. There are also quite a few tinnitus apps available, which can allow you to select from a variety of soft and relaxing sounds. Whatever you choose, remember to keep the distraction level lower than the tinnitus levels they are experiencing. If you don’t follow this rule, when the background noise is turned off the sufferer’s tinnitus levels may spike in result.

So, what are the causes?

Tinnitus is a familiar pathology of the older generation with various causes that include metabolic, cardiovascular, otology and neurologic. It is generally described as ringing in the ears and also roaring, clicking, buzzing and hissing. This condition can come and go and vary in severity and more often than not, the first signs of age-related hearing loss in older adults (or presbycusis).

Tinnitus can go alongside any form of hearing loss and can indicate other health problems such as allergies, high blood pressure or even side effects of medication. It is a symptom or condition and therefore not a disease – hence why it could be a result of several health concerns and often affects an individual functioning as a whole.

In summary, there are no definitive causes for tinnitus. A safe and realistic evaluation would be that it could be a result of one or more combined health problems. The sufferer’s success in being able to cope is often due to being utterly distracted by something, someone or an activity. Reduce the burden and the challenge by sharing the experience of an activity or hobby with them and by just ‘being there’ on their hearing journey.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of Hearing Link Services or Hearing Dogs for Deaf People unless explicitly stated.

Paul HarrisonThis article was written by Paul Harrison – Founder of Hearing Aid UK. Paul has been in the audiological industry for over 20 years. He has dispensed many hearing aids as a private audiologist, and he sits on the Council of the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists (BSHAA).