Hearing loss and getting older
Hearing loss is an inevitable part of getting older. Unfortunately, it can engender hostility and annoyance from others and can lead to social isolation and depression. This can result in people trying to hide their hearing loss, becoming embarrassed by it, and ultimately, delaying seeking treatment.
Some live with the difficulty of this invisible disability for months, or even years, before seeking treatment. Some never seek help at all, even though simple solutions that could drastically improve their quality of life exist.
Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) – is the cumulative effect that aging has on our hearing organs and is classed as a sensorineural hearing loss.
Sensorineural hearing loss – with this type of hearing loss, the cause lies in the inner ear or sensory organ (cochlea and associated structures). In many cases, it occurs when the tiny hair cells that line the cochlea are damaged.
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As we age, we all start to lose some of our hearing abilities, though the degree of loss is extremely variable from person to person. It usually develops gradually, so it is often hard to notice the decline in our hearing capacity.
Typically, both ears are affected to the same degree, and sounds within the high-frequency range tend to be impacted more than deeper sounds at the start of the degeneration. Other sounds can seem to be too loud or overwhelming.
It’s estimated that presbycusis affects 30-40% of Australians over the age of 65 and a rise in the number of presbycusis cases is predicted. Modern day living is noisy, add that to the fact that young people are subjecting their ears to excessively loud music, and it’s no surprise that hearing loss is becoming more prevalent. This means that it is imperative to take measures to protect our hearing.
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Aside from natural age-related hearing degradation, some other causes of hearing loss include:
- Excessive exposure to loud noise
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Autoimmune diseases
- Traumatic injuries
- Meniere’s disease
- Growths in the inner ear
- Medication side effects
- Hereditary factors
- Conductive hearing loss – caused by a physical blockage in the ear like a narrowing of the ear canal or a wax blockage.
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It is important to wear hearing protection if sound levels at your workplace exceed 85 decibels, as being in this environment for sustained periods of time can be very damaging to the ears. Some people may experience temporary tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears, after a concert or being near construction, so earplugs are a great tool to prevent lasting damage.
How do we hear?
The outer ear acts as a funnel to collect sounds and transport them through the ear canal.
At the end of the ear canal is the eardrum. This is a thin piece of tightly stretched skin, made to vibrate when sound waves hit it.
When the eardrum vibrates it moves a set of three tiny bones on the inside called ossicles. These are connected to the cochlea which is a small curled tube filled with fluid and lined with tiny hair cells. The vibrations sent through the ossicles create waves in the fluid which move the hair cells.
The hair cells then translate vibrations into electrical impulses which are carried to the brain by sensory nerves. The nerves send unique signals for each sound, as high-frequency and low-frequency sounds affect the hair cells in different ways. This is how sounds are distinguished from one another.
These tiny hair cells become damaged by standard wear and tear throughout life as we age. This makes it more difficult for them to move and flex correctly, resulting in them not receiving or sending the right signals to the brain, so a hearing loss occurs.
As long as these hair cells are not damaged too severely, hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids. An audiologist or audiometrist can assess the severity of the damage and recommend treatment. Click here to book a free hearing test now.
A hearing loss may not only make us struggle to hear sounds loud enough. It may also present itself by causing problems with differentiating where sounds are coming from, having difficulty following a conversation in a noisy environment, or manifest as a constant ringing or buzzing sound in your ears (tinnitus).
Signs of hearing loss
Here are a few things to take into account if you’re suspecting you, or someone around you, may have hearing issues.
Hearing loss can affect people in many ways, the most common are:
- Causing the person to withdraw from social situations, as they find it difficult to communicate and may feel embarrassed asking people to repeat themselves often.
- Leaving a hearing loss untreated could lead to health conditions such as emotional problems like depression and anxiety, and could allow the hearing loss to become worse.
- Less personal and professional opportunities as it is hard for the person to communicate clearly and efficiently.
Healthy brain, healthy hearing?
The brain plays an essential part in the process of hearing. It needs to gather the electrical signals that are collected by the auditory nerve and convert them into waves that we can recognise as sound.
A younger, healthier brain may find this task easy and get through it in a flash. An older brain, weakened by age, however, may find this process more taxing, and it may affect our ability to hear and understand a conversation. Some research supported by the NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) has suggested that structural changes in the brain (due to aging) may have an impact on our hearing, or at least, how we process the sounds we hear.
So keeping an active brain by using puzzles, crosswords and brain training programs may prove useful in later life. A healthy diet, rich in leafy greens, vitamins and antioxidants, daily exercise, low stress, limited alcohol and a smoke-free environment can all help to keep your brain as healthy as possible.
Causes of Presbycusis
Presbycusis is typically caused by the degeneration of cells as we age but could also be caused or exacerbated by environmental and/or genetic factors, diseases, and certain medications.
Researchers have also found a connection between presbycusis and risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. So a healthy lifestyle can lessen the risk of age-related hearing loss, but genetic predisposition might also be a contributing factor. So, while it may be impossible to avoid hearing loss altogether, some preventative measures can be taken to stop it from worsening, such as:
- Avoiding repetitive exposure to loud sounds.
- Wearing ear protection when necessary.
- Living a healthy lifestyle with nutritious food and exercise.
- Taking measures to lower your blood pressure if it is high.
- Controlling your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
Living with presbycusis
The most important thing to do if you suspect you have any form of hearing loss, is to see an audiologist or audiometrist. They will measure the degree of impairment and recommend treatment. Even though presbycusis cannot be completely reversed, there are a few ways that your hearing can be improved.
- Hearing aids – There are many different types and styles of hearing aids on the market today. They all use amplification to improve a person’s hearing, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some are completely hidden in the ear canal, so that you can go about daily activities like speaking on the telephone and wearing headphones, exactly as you have been. Others sit behind the ear and connect to a dome inside the ear by a plastic tube or thin wire. You can try out some different styles to see which would work best for your lifestyle.
- Cochlear implants – This is a step up from hearing aids and typically serve those with a severe hearing loss. It is surgically implanted and doesn’t use amplification to help with hearing loss; instead it bypasses the damaged parts of the ear and sends the sound signals directly to the auditory nerve. The sounds you receive will be different to what you are used to if the severe hearing loss is caused by presbycusis rather than a congenital defect. So it will take time to get used to a cochlear implant.
- Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) – ALDs also use amplification to bring the sounds closer to the ear. They can be used in theatres, places of worship and even in the home. They make things like speech, the TV and radio, and environmental noises that we want to hear, louder. They can be used alongside hearing aids and implants to amplify sound even more.
Age-related hearing loss cannot be reversed entirely, but hearing aids or an assistive listening device can significantly improve your quality of life. Seek early treatment so that you can retain your current hearing, or minimise the loss, as soon as possible.
Some ways to manage hearing loss
- Be honest and upfront when talking to friends and family. With a little understanding from them, you may not feel so isolated.
- Make sure to face the person you are talking to in a well-lit room so that you can see their lips moving and read their facial expressions.
- Speak to an audiologist about hearing aids or cochlear implants which use amplification to treat hearing loss.
If you think you may have age-related hearing loss, you should have your hearing checked as soon as possible. Click here to book a free hearing test now.