Your odds of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some amount of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s critical to understand hearing loss, so that you can detect the signs and symptoms and take protective actions to prevent damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to zero in 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 the result of 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 hereditary malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This form of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is triggered by injury 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 through the external ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a consequence of damage to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is conveyed to the brain for processing is diminished.
This weakened signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually affects speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, contrary to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a number of 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
- Aging (presbycusis)
The final two, direct 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 shows that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can regulate the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should try to remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always occurs very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms progress so gradually that it can be nearly impossible to notice.
A slight amount of hearing loss every year will not be very recognizable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your family and friends. So even though you might believe that everyone is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to excessive levels
- Constantly asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day
If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to arrange for 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 retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is good news because it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be averted by adopting some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage your hearing with long-term 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 prevent hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Additionally, think about buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling 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 preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a loud occupation, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a number of household and recreational activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during extended exposure.
If you currently 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 enhance your conversations and relationships and can prevent any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!