Hearing loss is a condition that affects millions of Americans — 37.5 million, to be exact. These numbers bear out what we know experientially: that age plays a significant role in the deterioration of our hearing.
But what actually causes our ability to hear to lessen as we grow older? What happens within the ear as we age? And is there any way to prevent age-related hearing loss?
What is age-related hearing loss?
Hearing loss is among the most common maladies affecting Americans over 65. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), almost 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 75 — and almost half of Americans over the age of 75 — suffer from hearing loss.
The gradual loss of hearing that occurs as we age is called presbycusis. It occurs in both ears, affecting each equally.
As we age, various changes occur in our inner ear. These changes are a leading cause of presbycusis. However, similar changes in the bones and muscles of the middle ear can sometimes be responsible for age-related hearing loss. So too can changes that affect the nerves that connect the ear to the brain.
What changes occur in the ear as we age?
The primary cause of age-related hearing loss is damage to the cochlea, a spiral-shaped structure in the inner ear. The cochlea is full of fluid whose movements, influenced by the middle ear, stimulate sensory receptors — tiny hairs which do not regenerate if they suffer extensive damage — which convert sound frequencies into electrical signals to be processed by the brain. (These receptors are located in portion of the cochlea’s called the Organ of Corti.) As our bodies age, our cochlea undergoes progressive pathophysiological degeneration.
The following factors may complicate this natural process.
- Heredity. Research strongly suggests that a family history of age-related hearing loss can predispose some individuals to this condition.
- Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), which is most often caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise (sounds louder than 85 decibels).
- Impaired functioning of the eardrum.
- Impaired functioning of the ossicles — the three bones responsible for creating the vibrations that propagate through the cochlear fluid — of the middle ear.
What other factors contribute to age-related hearing loss?
In addition to the natural damage that accrues to the physical components of the ear as we age, several other factors can contribute to age-related hearing loss.
High blood pressure and diabetes are both conditions that commonly affect older people. Both can aggravate the symptoms of age-related hearing loss. In fact, any disorder that affects the circulatory system, including stroke and heart disease, can also exacerbate age-related hearing loss.
Beyond the complications stemming from these otherwise unrelated health issues, several diseases can cause hearing loss. Otosclerosis afflicts the ossicles of the middle ear. Ménière’s disease disrupts the workings of the inner ear and can also cause episodes of vertigo and a persistent ringing in the ears (or tinnitus). Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED) produces similar symptoms.
Finally, certain medications can also contribute to age-related hearing loss. These medications damage the ear and are known as ototoxic. Both prescription and over-the-counter medications can be ototoxic. Antibiotics, pain medications, drugs designed to assist with kidney functions and certain chemotherapies, if taken in large quantities or in combination with other health factors, can all lead to damage to the ears.
What are the symptoms of hearing loss?
In most cases, hearing loss occurs gradually, and it may be difficult for you to notice your own hearing loss.
Typically, hearing loss occurs in the high-frequency range. Our ears lose the ability to detect higher-pitched sounds. As these higher pitches become more faint, it can be especially difficult to interpret human speech. This explains why a key symptom of presbycusis is the inability to understand what someone is saying — or requiring someone to repeat themselves often when they are talking to you.
Can hearing aids help if you suffer from hearing loss?
The medical community currently has no means of preventing age-related hearing loss. However, you can take precautions against making your age-related hearing loss worse by limiting your exposure to loud sounds and maintaining good general health.
Depending on the exact nature and cause of your age-related hearing loss, certain devices can improve your hearing. Among the most common of these medical appliances are hearing aids.
Hearing aids are electronic instruments worn either behind or within the ear. Hearing aids are sophisticated amplifiers that pick up, filter and increase the volume of sounds in the environment around you. While hearing aids have many benefits, it can take some time and guidance from a hearing aid specialist to fully adjust to wearing one.
If you think you may be experiencing hearing loss, the friendly and professional staff Hearing Aid Express can administer a hearing test and help you understand your options for improving your hearing. Contact them today to schedule an appointment.