Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you grow older. In the United States, 48 million individuals report some amount of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the signs and symptoms and take protective actions to reduce 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
In general, there are three types 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 caused by some kind 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.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss is the most prevalent and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is triggered by injury to the hair cells (the 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 through the external ear, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is conveyed to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is generally permanent and can’t be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has multiple 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, exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly good news because it means that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should always remember that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually comes about very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be just about impossible to perceive.
A slight amount of hearing loss every year will not be very recognizable to you, but after several years it will be very apparent to your friends and family. So although you may think that everybody is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to excess levels
- Regularly asking other people to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming excessively 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 a good idea to arrange a hearing test. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to conserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is by far the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be prevented by implementing some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with chronic 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 reduce the risk of 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. Also consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the limit of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears on the job – if you work in a high-volume profession, talk with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a number of household and leisure activities generate 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 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 forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!