There’s a common myth that hearing loss is a “disease of the elderly.” While hearing does naturally diminish as we age, this condition is not confined to the older population; younger people can – and do – experience hearing loss, as well.
Noise-induced hearing loss affects people of all ages.
Fortunately, if you take preventive steps now, you can reduce the impact of hearing loss associated with noise exposure.
When normal hearing occurs, sound waves pass through the outer, middle and inner ear and are translated to nerve impulses that the brain interprets as sound. Loss of hearing results when this process is disrupted.
Approximately 1 out of 3 people aged 65 and older experiences loss of hearing; that number jumps to 1 out of 2 by the age of 75. But age-related hearing loss (known medically as presbycusis) isn’t the only cause of hearing loss. It’s not even the most common cause: that distinction belongs to excessive noise exposure. Other causes include impacted earwax, ear infections, trauma, medical conditions such as otosclerosis or Meniere’s disease, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Signs and Symptoms
The onset of hearing loss is usually gradual; subtle changes in hearing ability can be hard to notice at first. Signs to look for include having difficulty understanding individuals when they speak (especially in situations where background noise is a factor), speech that sounds muffled, asking people to repeat themselves often, turning the volume on the television or radio to levels that others find uncomfortable, and withdrawing from social activities that you have previously enjoyed. Often, it takes a family member to make you aware of your declining ability to hear.
There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. A conductive hearing loss involves problems with the middle ear; some of the more common ones include ear infections, excess earwax, injury, and abnormal growths. This type of hearing loss is often cured through the use of medications or surgery. Sensorineural hearing loss is more serious – and also, the most common type. It involves damage to the inner ear, and is usually permanent. It is the result of nerve damage, which may occur following a disease or exposure to noise; in some cases, it is hereditary. Fortunately, most cases of sensorineural hearing loss can be effectively treated with hearing aids. A third type, mixed hearing loss, is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
Prevention and Treatment
Presbycusis and certain other types of hearing loss are not preventable, but noise-induced hearing loss is. The key is to wear hearing protection consistently, whether in the workplace or during a recreational activity (rock concert, sporting event, riding a motorcycle). There are even custom earplugs available for specific activities. Make sure your children are up to date on their immunizations. When engaged in water activities such as swimming or surfing, take care to keep moisture from entering your ear canals.
Conductive hearing loss is treated with medication or surgery, depending on the cause. Sensorineural hearing loss responds most successfully to treatment with hearing devices.