Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some point in your life are unfortunately quite high, even more so as you grow older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some extent of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can detect the signs and symptoms and take preventative actions to prevent damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the most widespread form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three forms of hearing loss
In general, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is caused by some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and genetic malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This category of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is triggered by damage to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves running from the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter through the outer ear, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is presented to the brain for processing is weakened.
This diminished signal is perceived as faint or muffled and usually has an effect on speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is generally permanent and can’t be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, exposure to loud noise and the aging process, represent the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news as it means that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, obviously, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always unfolds very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms advance so slowly and gradually that it can be near impossible to perceive.
A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very recognizable to you, but after a number of years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So even though you may believe that everyone is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to elevated levels
- Consistently asking others to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming exceedingly tired at the end of the day
If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange a hearing test. Hearing tests are easy and painless, and the earlier you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to conserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be eliminated by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with sustained exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. That means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could harm your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Use the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Also consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at the workplace – if you work in a high-volume occupation, talk with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a number of household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can dramatically improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!