ONE of Cork's leading audiologists has described how people concealing hearing loss were forced to finally seek help after the introduction of face masks left them unable to lip read.
While most specialities saw a decline in appointments, the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital's chief audiologist, Shane McMahon said he saw a steady stream of patients.
The healthcare professional said that normally patients refrain from presenting with hearing issues until seven to 10 years after they develop. Instead, they adopt coping mechanisms like lip-reading to hide their secret from friends and family.
The dangers of this, Mr Mc Mahon explained, are far more dangerous than people realise.
Mr McMahon explained that ignoring the issue can put hearing loss sufferers at risk of dementia and premature ageing of the brain.
"Many people associate hearing loss with getting older," he said. "In actual fact, hearing loss is a huge risk factor for dementia and premature ageing of the brain. International studies from the Lancet revealed that fitting a hearing aid has the biggest impact on a person's cognitive functioning. A lot of people view hearing aids as a sign of getting older but, in reality, they have the opposite effect. By having hearing loss treated you are keeping the brain young. The technology in hearing aids is better than it ever was with features like bluetooth and the ability to detect falls. However, at less than 5% the uptake in this area is still very low. "
He spoke of how presenting early as a result of the pandemic may have saved patients from a devastating fate.
"People in these situations tend to isolate themselves anyway because they find it so hard to hear in group conversations. Those with compromised hearing used lip and speech reading quite a lot but the masks took all that away from them. Before that, hearing loss was at the bottom of the pecking order for them. The pandemic meant they were no longer able to delay doing something about it. Hearing loss was brought to the fore when carrying out zoom and video calls. They struggled hugely on that front. It heightened the problem for some people and prompted them to seek help"
Mr McMahon listed the ways in which his role adapted in line with the pandemic.
"From an infection and control point of view, the visors were less effective. However, by stepping back two metres and briefly wearing the visor people could still lip-read and understand speech. There are masks out there that are partly transparent but the difficulty with these is the condensation that forms.
"We did consultations in the car park and through car windows. We took bone-anchored hearing aid processors off that were broken and reprogrammed them while the patient waited in the car. For patients with underlying health conditions, you were the only person they saw outside of their own family. They were grateful for anything we could provide even if that was just reassurance by saying "this is working fine" or "you are doing everything you should be doing."
He urged anyone experiencing signs of hearing loss to speak to their GP immediately so a referral can be organised to prevent damage to cognitive functioning.
More information about supports available for those with hearing loss is available here.