Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you age. In the US, 48 million people report some level of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the signs and symptoms and take protective actions to reduce injury to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the most common form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is caused by some kind 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 form of hearing loss is the most common and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented 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 the external ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is supplied to the brain for processing is weakened.
This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and normally impacts speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news since it shows that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should try to remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly that it can be near impossible to detect.
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 family and friends. So while you may think everyone is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to excessive levels
- Consistently asking other people to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming exceedingly tired at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to book a hearing test. Hearing tests are fast and pain-free, and the earlier you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
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 implementing some simple protective measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with prolonged exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. Which means at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Employ 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. Additionally, think about purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling of safe volume (you could damage 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 your workplace – if you work in a loud occupation, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect 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 extended exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can enhance your conversations and relationships and can prevent any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!