If you take your ears for granted, listen up:
Hearing loss is the third most common physical health problem in the U.S. next to arthritis and heart disease. It’s also on the rise with nearly 36-38 million Americans now reporting lost hearing. When hearing goes, it may affect quality of life and relationships.
CAUSES OF HEARING LOSS
Certain conditions, including age, noise exposure, illness, and genetics, may contribute to hearing loss. Over several generations, modern life has added a host of ear-damaging elements to the list, including some medications and plenty of sources of loud, continuous noise.
Advanced age is the most common cause of hearing loss. One out of three people aged 65-74 has some level of hearing loss. After age 75, that ratio goes up to one out of every two people.Researchers don’t fully understand why hearing decreases with age. It could be that lifetime exposure to noise and other damaging factors slowly wear down the ears’ delicate mechanics. Genes also play a role.
Noise wears down hearing if it’s loud or continuous. so the duration and intensity of the sound needs to be considered. In some workplaces, ears are exposed to dangerous noise levels every day. Even musicians, who literally create music for our ears, are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Some now wear special earplugs or monitors to protect their ears when they perform. The earplugs allow them to hear music without harming their ears’ inner workings.
Certain medications can impair hearing and/or balance. More than 200 medications and chemicals have a track record of triggering hearing and/or balance side effects in addition to their disease-fighting capabilities. These include some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs, aspirin, loop diuretics, a drug used to treat malaria, and several drugs for erectile dysfunction.
Sudden hearing loss, the rapid loss of 30 decibels or more of hearing ability, can happen over several hours or days. (A normal conversation is 60 decibels.) In nine out of 10 cases, sudden hearing loss affects only one ear. Though there are about 4,000 new cases of sudden hearing loss a year, the cause can only be found in 10% to 15% of cases.
Certain illnesses, such as heart disease , high blood pressure and diabetes, put ears at risk by interfering with the ears’ blood supply. Otosclerosis is a bone disease of the middle ear and Meniere’s disease affects the inner ear. Both can cause hearing loss.
Trauma, especially that which involves a skull fracture or punctured eardrum, puts ears at serious risk for hearing loss.
Infection or ear wax (Cerumen) can block ear canals and reduce hearing, usually temporarily.
SYMPTOMS OF HEARING LOSS
In many cases, hearing fades so slowly, its departure goes unnoticed. You may think that people are mumbling more, that it’s easier to hear male voices better than female voices, your spouse needs to speak up, and the telephone is an inferior communication device. As long as some sound still comes in, you may assume your hearing is fine. But you may be wrong.
At the early stage of hearing loss, high-pitched sounds and soft consonant sounds, such as children’s and female voices, and the sounds “S” and “F” become harder to decipher. Other symptoms of hearing loss include:
- Trouble understanding phone conversations
- Trouble hearing above background noise
- Trouble following a conversation when more than one person speaks at once
- Perception that people are not speaking clearly or mumbling
- Often misunderstanding what people say and responding inappropriately
- Often having to ask people to repeat themselves
- Frequent complaints by others that the TV is too loud
LEVELS OF HEARING LOSS
- Classification of hearing loss by degree: from mild, moderate, severe, or profound. As the stages progress, the person with hearing loss becomes increasingly cut off from the world of speech and sounds. The symptoms of these categories include:
- Mild hearing loss. One-on-one conversations are fine but it becomes hard to catch every word in the presence of background noise.
- Moderate hearing loss. You often need to ask people to repeat themselves during in-person and telephone conversations.
- Severe hearing loss. Following a conversation is almost impossible without hearing aids.
- Profound hearing loss. You cannot hear other people speaking, unless they are extremely loud. Without hearing aids or cochlear implants you cannot understand speech.
TREATMENT OF HEARING LOSS
- Treatment depends on the type and source of hearing loss. For medically treated hearing loss, surgery may reverse hearing loss caused by otosclerosis, scar tissue, or infection while Ménière’s disease is sometimes treatable with medication and diet modification. Hearing aids are often needed in addition to or after the medical treatment.
- Hearing loss caused by infection can often be treated with antibiotics prescribed by your physician.
- If you think your hearing loss stems from medication use, talk with your physician about alternative drug options. Prompt medical treatment for sudden hearing loss may increase the chance of recovery.
- People with permanent hearing loss need to learn how to function with the hearing they still have. Most people with permanent hearing loss can benefit from using hearing aids — yet only one in five eligible people use them. Hearing aids are tiny instruments you typically wear in or behind your ear that make sounds louder and clearer. Things do sound different through the use of hearing aids, so it’s important to work with your audiologist to set realistic expectations and goals.
- Other sound-enhancing technologies include personal listening systems that allow you to tune in to what you want to hear and mute other sounds. TV-listening systems make it possible for you to hear the television or radio without turning the volume way up. Different kinds of phone-amplifying devices are available to make conversations possible on home and mobile phones. Our audiologists can educate you on the benefit of connectivity with your hearing aids.
- Cochlear implants are used with young children and are becoming more popular among older adults with severe to profound hearing loss.
LIVING WITH HEARING LOSS
You can work with your family and friends to re-establish two-way communication. For starters, set up your home so your rooms are well lit and the chairs face each other. Seeing the faces of people when they talk allows you to see their mouths move as well as their facial expressions. Remove avoidable sources of background noise; for instance, turn off the TV when no one’s watching it. Then let people know a few things they can do to help you understand them better:
- Make sure they have your attention before they start talking.
- Make sure you can see their lips moving when they talk.
- Speak clearly but don’t shout and at a moderate pace.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOUR EARS
- With so many untreatable cases of hearing loss, prevention is your best ticket to healthy long-term hearing. Wear earplugs when you’re exposed to sounds as loud or louder than traffic. Lawn mowers, power sanders, vacuums, and most concerts are all loud enough to harm unprotected ears. When possible, move away from the source of the noise. For example, cross the street or cover your ears when you walk past a loud road construction site.
- If you work in a noisy workplace, talk to your employer about ear safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that employers in noisy plants install barrier walls or mufflers to protect their workers’ hearing. Hearing loss is often permanent, so do what you can to protect one of your most valuable natural assets.
- Noise induced hearing loss is usually permanent and usually depends on the duration and intensity of the sound.