Most Hearing Loss Is Age-Related
Hearing is a complicated process. When a sound enters the external ear, it causes the outer eardrum to vibrate, or shake. The three small bones of the ear then respond to this shaking, and begin vibrating. The vibration reaches the inner ear, and produces waves in the inner ear fluid. These waves move the tiny hairs in the inner ear, and an electrical signal is sent to the brain. The brain reads these electrical signals as sounds. If any of the steps in this process do not occur, normal hearing is not possible. Hearing loss is common; some 28 million Americans are either deaf or are hard of hearing. Although hearing loss can occur at any age, most hearing loss is related to aging and is often noticed between ages 65 and 75 years. The causes are usually inherited (genetic) or environmental (caused by exposure to something in the environment), but hearing loss can be due to a combination of these causes. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from hearing loss do not get help, often because they are embarrassed or worried others will think they are getting old. Many people with hearing loss become isolated and may suffer from depression.
Hearing loss can be dramatic even in children and young adults who have a genetic tendency toward this problem. Exposure to environmental noise, which includes loud music, is an emerging cause of hearing loss.
Don’t Delay in Seeking Help
Hearing loss typically occurs in degrees; mild hearing loss is often not noticed by individuals until it becomes obvious and then may develop into complete hearing lossdeafness. Hearing loss is most often associated with aging, since 1 in 10 people have some degree of hearing loss by age 65 and one in two people suffer from a loss in hearing by age 80. But it can occur as early as birth or can develop while a baby is learning to speak.
Why Hearing Loss? There are many reasons why hearing loss develops. Some hearing loss is inherited as an isolated genetic defect or is the result of another illness. The susceptibility or likelihood of developing hearing loss can also be indirectly inherited; for example, some patients are more likely than others to lose their hearing from taking certain medications. Hearing loss can also be environmental, a result of exposure to something outside the body. Most people recognize that hearing loss can result after exposure to loud noises. Loud noises damage the tiny hairs in the inner ear, and can happen in an instant or over a long period of time. Hearing loss can also be a result of an injury to the eardrum, damage from infections or head injuries, and exposure to drugs and chemicals. Smoking may be a cause of hearing loss through damage to the tiny hairs of the inner ear when blood flow is blocked in the tiny blood vessels in the area.
When to Seek Help: When is hearing loss serious enough to seek help? For most people, hearing loss is significant when everyday activities become difficult. Signs of hearing loss include constantly having others repeat themselves, misunderstanding what others have said, difficulty in following the conversations of others, or complaints about the volume of TV and radios. Some people also suffer from ringing or noise in the ear, known as tinnitus. Most people take several years to seek help when hearing loss begins to cause problems. When hearing loss becomes evident, specialists can help in diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor may send you to an audiologist to measure hearing precisely. Audiologists can also fit hearing aids. In certain cases, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an otologist (ear doctor) may be asked to evaluate hearing loss for treatment.
Hearing Aids: Hearing aids make sounds louder. A wide variety of hearing aids are available, including analog, digital, adjustable, programmable, in-the-ear, behind-the-ear, and canal-type aids, and they have a wide range of prices. Personal listening systems help people hear what they want to hear while lowering the other noises around them. It is important to try a variety of models before settling on a particular hearing aid, since different types work better for some people. It takes time to become accustomed to hearing with a hearing aid, since sounds are much louder, including your own voice. A common problem with hearing aids is feedback, a whistling noise in the hearing aid device. This noise can usually be corrected with some adjustments by the audiologist. Hearing aids also come with a warranty that may cover maintenance and repairs.
Check Hearing Periodically: Everyone, even small infants, needs to have hearing checked periodically to avoid hearing loss, especially if one is exposed to very loud noises.