When most people think of hearing loss, they picture the elderly. However, there are a growing number of younger military men and women suffering the effects of early-onset hearing loss, which is often caused by exposure to loud noise. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of veterans suffering from hearing loss only seems to be increasing. According to the Royal British Legion, an estimated 300,000 ex-armed forces personnel suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, commonly known as NIHL – more than twice the number of personnel currently in the UK Armed Forces!
Some of the effects of hearing loss are well known. Everyone knows someone with hearing problems that has the television volume or the car radio up far louder than most other people find comfortable. However, there are many other, less obvious, effects of NIHL which particularly affect younger suffers because of their age and lifestyle.
Those suffering from NIHL may struggle with speech intelligibility. This means they may struggle with the amount of language they find comprehensible. Ideally, for someone with NIHL at least, everyone would speak clearly, only one person would talk at once and all conversations would take place in a quiet room. However, this simply isn’t reality. As soon as you add a softly spoken speaker or a different accent into the mix then someone with NIHL might struggle to hear the whole conversation. It can be embarrassing to have to ask someone to repeat themselves constantly. In reality, people tend to just pretend they have heard what has been said and will make up the missing pieces of the conversation or simply give up if the circumstance allows. You can soon see how difficult this can become if the speaker is a colleague or a business associate.
Add in some background noise and an NIHL sufferer will start to struggle even more. Those with NIHL often have a marked difficulty understanding any type of speech in the presence of background noise. Younger Veterans often avoid the pub or busy restaurants altogether as they feel socially excluded because they simply cannot keep up with the conversations going on around them. This can affect their confidence and relationships with loved ones and can start to become a bigger and bigger problem for them. In time, for some Veterans, hearing loss can result in low self-esteem, increased irritability, isolation and loneliness. Hearing loss has also been linked to a number of mental health problems such as depression, stress and anxiety, all of which we know veterans are at a higher risk of in any event.
Those with higher frequency hearing losses, which are the typical frequencies affected by noise damage, may struggle to work out the direction from which noise comes from. In a combat setting, this can be fatal but it also causes problems in civilian life. It can lead to a greater risk to personal safety by decreasing alertness and impacting the ability to perceive surrounding danger. This can also stop those with NIHL from obtaining certain jobs where you need to have sensitive hearing, such as with the Police Force or Fire Service.
In fact, there are many jobs that Veterans suffering from NIHL may struggle with. They can struggle on the telephone making many office jobs or call centre jobs difficult. Those working on construction sites may fail to hear warning calls and fail to hear instructions in the presence of the usual background noise expected in this type of work. Jobs that expose them to further noise such as working in a factory may be out of the question in order to avoid the risk of any further hearing damage. Everyday situations that civilians take for granted can become unmanageable for those with hearing difficulties. Of course, continued service in any one of the three branches of the military can also become unfeasible once hearing problems develop. This can lead to unemployment, poverty and further social isolation.
Another important consequence of NIHL is that sufferers may well have difficulty hearing young children because children’s voices are usually at higher frequencies than most adults. Many younger veterans have small children and one of the biggest problems for them is not being able to clearly hear what their children are telling them. This can lead to a serious strain on the parent/child relationship, to say nothing of the upset caused to the sufferer.
Others with NIHL may also struggle with some sounds produced by women which are usually said in higher frequencies, such as ‘SSSS.’ This can lead to arguments between partners; “they never listen to me” or ‘’they keep ignoring what I am saying”. In reality, they might just not be able to hear properly. Those with NIHL also miss out on the smaller things in life that everyone else takes for granted, such as the noise of birds singing in the morning.
Some of these effects can be addressed by good quality and properly fitted hearing aids. However, hearing aids that enhance only the higher frequencies can be some of the most expensive products available on the market. Usually, these aren’t accessible on the NHS. Some of the features of these premium hearing aids, such as Bluetooth connectivity for phones and TV, can be life changing. Simply allowing a family to be able to sit down and watch TV together can make a big difference in the lives of those with NIHL and their families. However, these types of aids can cost around £4,000 – £5,000 per pair which can be out of reach for many Veterans.
NIHL can be seen as a minor injury but in reality, it can have far-reaching consequences on an individual’s life, affecting their personal life, social life and working life.
This is not what the majority of people serving their country signed up for.