As we age, our bodies go through several changes. Hearing loss is one of those changes. In fact, hearing loss is one of the most common conditions that affect seniors. About one in three older Americans between 65 and 74 has hearing loss. Nearly half of those over the age of 75 have trouble hearing.
Hearing loss can range from mild to severe, depending on the age and cause. Causes and treatments also vary. Hearing loss can be hereditary, or it can be the result of trauma, disease, medication or long-term exposure to loud sounds.
Understanding Age-Related Hearing Loss
Age-related hearing loss is called presbycusis, and it’s extremely common in older adults. While common, presbycusis can have a significant impact on a person’s life. It can make it more difficult to understand a doctor’s advice, hear phones or doorbells, respond to warnings or hear smoke alarms.
On a more basic level, hearing loss can make it more difficult to enjoy conversations with friends and family, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
Typically, presbycusis affects both ears equally. The onset is gradual, so seniors often don’t realize that they’ve lost some of their ability to hear.
When hearing loss is age-related, symptoms usually start with an inability to hear high-pitched sounds, usually the voices of children or females. Some seniors have difficulty hearing background noises, or are unable to hear others speak clearly.
Age-related hearing may also cause other symptoms, such as:
- Trouble hearing when in noisy environments
- Certain sounds seeming too loud
- Ringing in the ears
- Trouble differentiating between “s” and “th” sounds
- Difficulty understanding telephone conversations
Seniors with hearing loss may ask people to repeat themselves, or they may have to turn up the volume on the radio or television louder than normal.
It’s important for seniors to talk to their doctors if they experience any of these symptoms, especially if they come on suddenly. These symptoms could be signs of underlying medical conditions.
Causes of Hearing Loss in Seniors
Age-related hearing loss can be caused by many things, but in most cases, it comes from changes in the inner ear. Some seniors may also develop hearing loss due to changes in the middle ear, or because of complex changes that occur along the nerve pathways between the ear and brain.
Depending on the situation, certain medications and medical conditions can result in hearing loss.
It’s difficult to distinguish between age-related hearing loss and hearing loss caused by other things, such as noise exposure.
Long-term exposure to sounds that are too loud or noise that lasts a long period of time can damage the sensory hair cells in your ear. These hair cells are what allow you to hear. Once they’re damaged, they do not grow back and diminish your ability to hear.
How You Hear
In order to truly understand the causes of hearing loss, you need to understand how you hear.
The ear has three major areas: outer, middle and inner.
- Sound waves move through the outer ear, and they cause vibrations in the eardrum.
- The eardrum, along with the three small bones of the middle ear, amplify these vibrations as they move through to the inner ear.
- From here, the vibrations pass through fluid in the cochlea, which is a small, snail-like structure in the inner ear.
The cochlea has thousands of tiny hairs that are attached to it. These hairs translate sound vibrations into electrical signals, which are transmitted to the brain. The brain then translates these signals into what we perceive as sound.
Causes and Risk Factors of Hearing Loss
We’ve already discussed some common causes of hearing loss in older adults. But now that you have a better understanding of how you hear, you can better understand some other causes of hearing loss. These include:
- Inner ear damage: One of the most common causes of hearing loss in seniors and those who are exposed to loud noise. Inner ear damage occurs when nerve cells or hairs in the cochlea are damaged. When this occurs, electrical signals aren’t transmitted properly or efficiently. It can be difficult to hear conversations when there’s background noise, or high-pitched tones may sound muffled.
- Ear infection, tumors or abnormal bone growth: When these affect the outer or middle ear, hearing loss can occur.
- Earwax build-up: When ears are not properly cleaned, earwax can build up in the ear canal, which prevents the conduction of sound waves. Removing the earwax should restore hearing.
- Ruptured eardrum: A ruptured eardrum can be caused by sudden pressure changes, loud blasts of noise, infection, or poking the eardrum with an object.
Hearing loss can also be caused by:
- Poor circulation
There are many factors that can lead to inner ear damage, including:
- Aging: Degeneration of the inner ear over time.
- Occupational or loud noises: Jobs where loud noise is a regular part of the working environment, such as construction, farming, factory work. Long-term exposure to loud noise can damage the inner ear.
- Heredity: Genetics can make certain people more susceptible to inner ear damage from aging or sound.
- Medications: Certain drugs can damage the inner ear, such as some chemotherapy drugs, sildenafil (Viagra) and some antibiotics. Very high doses of aspirin can cause temporary hearing loss or ringing in the ears.
- Illness: Some illnesses or diseases can cause hearing loss, including those that result in high fever, such as meningitis. These illnesses can damage the cochlea.
Treatments for Hearing Loss
There are many different treatment options for hearing loss. The right one for you will depend on the severity of your hearing loss.
The most common treatments include:
- Hearing aids: Electronic instruments that are worn in or behind the ear and amplify sounds. Not all hearing aids are created equal, so you may have to try a few different ones before you find a model that works well for you. Many manufacturers offer free trial periods. Hearing aids are generally not covered by insurance or Medicare, but the diagnostic evaluation for a hearing aid may be covered.
- Assistive listening devices: These include phone amplifying devices, hearing loop systems, or smartphone apps that are distributed in theaters, places of worship, auditoriums, museums or other venues.
- Cochlear implants: Small electronic devices that are surgically implanted in the inner ear. They provide a sense of sound to people who are hard-of-hearing or deaf. A cochlear implant may be recommended if your hearing loss is severe.
- Bone anchored hearing systems: These systems bypass the ear canal and the middle ear. They rely on the body’s natural ability to transfer sound using bone conduction. The device picks up the sound, converts it to vibrations, and transmits those vibrations from your skull bone to your inner ear.
Hearing loss is common in older adults, but that doesn’t mean that you have to suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about having your hearing tested and exploring your treatment options.