Australians are damaging their ears to such an extent that up to a quarter of the population will be hearing-impaired within 20 years, says a leading expert.

The main problems are an ageing population and the overall increased loudness of the modern environment, says Associate Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of Hearing Cooperative Research Centre.

He says people should think about noise damage in a similar way to sunburn. A combination of how loud, how long and how often.

In addition, significant numbers of soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have permanent ear damage, says Prof Cowan, who is speaking at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday.

The talk ahead of Hearing Awareness Week is part of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital's 150th Anniversary public lecture series.

"The louder the sound, the less available time you have without causing damage. Hearing loss is life long. You don't get over it."

He says hearing loss is a normal consequence of ageing.

"But we are making it worse," he says.

"People are living longer and the concern is that we are going to have more people in the older age ranges who are going to have more hearing loss."

He says people should have routine ear checks after the age of 50 and younger people should see their GP if they have ringing in their ears or other issues.

"There are lots of options to restore communication. Far more options than have been available in the past."

He says scientists are working on ways to improve technology and cochlear implants should improve dramatically over the next 10 to 15 years.

At present, using a cochlear implant can be tiring, as the listener needs to concentrate both on active listening and the message itself, similar to what normal hearers experience when they are trying to communicate in a second language.

"We want to shift it to a point where people do not need to think too much about the action of listening.

"In the future we are hoping to overcome a lot of the issues, like enabling people to sleep with their implant or use it in water."

 

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