Your chances of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some extent of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the signs and symptoms and take protective actions to prevent damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to focus on the most common form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three forms of hearing loss
Generally speaking, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Typical 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 type of hearing loss is the most prevalent and accounts for about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is triggered by injury to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of damage to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is conveyed to the brain for processing is weakened.
This diminished signal is perceived as faint or muffled and usually affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, contrary to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and cannot be remedied with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has various possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and aging, constitute the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually good news because it means that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can regulate the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very gradually. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly and gradually that it can be virtually impossible to notice.
A small amount of hearing loss every year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So although you may think everybody is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to elevated levels
- Constantly asking others to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Feeling excessively exhausted 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 exam. Hearing tests are easy and pain-free, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to maintain.
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 instances of hearing loss in the United States could be averted by implementing some simple protective measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with extended 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 damage your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Implement the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Also consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at live shows – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a high-volume profession, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – Several 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 significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and easy hearing test today!