According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 20% of adults in the U.S. report some level of hearing loss. Of these 48 million people, the vast majority are the over the age of 65 and hearing loss is specifically linked to changes in the body due to aging. The organization further reports that at the age of 65, one out of three people reported hearing loss. Understanding the cause(s) behind age-related hearing loss is the first step in maintaining quality of life.
Why Is Age-Related Hearing Loss So Common?
Many argue that advances in health care are helping people live longer and longer. However, certain organs in our body may not able to continue to function optimally for that long. In age-related hearing loss, the actual structures within the inner ear often cease to function.
The inner ear contains a vast number of tiny receptor cells known as hair cells. (If viewed under a microscope, they have structures that look like hair poking out from their tops.) These hair cells help pick up relevant information within incoming sound waves, translate it into electrical pulses and, via the hearing nerve, the information is transmitted to the brain for decoding.
As we age, sometimes from as early as our mid to late 40s, hair cells may begin to deteriorate. The body is unable to regrow new hair cells at the moment, so when a critical mass of hair cells is affected, hearing loss will be experienced. In time, that gradual loss in hearing ability can start impacting quality of life. Once this has occurred, the condition does not simply “go away.” Rather the negative effects tend to get worse the older one gets.
Other contributing factors may accelerate the progression of age-related hearing loss:
· Damage to the inner ear hair cells from prolonged exposure to harmful noise levels
· Family history
· Certain medical conditions and medications
What Does Hearing Loss Sound Like?
We use the phrase “sound like” because age-related hearing loss rarely leads to complete deafness. Typically, an individual will retain some hearing ability. Common symptoms include:
· Difficulty hearing people around you, especially in noisy areas
· Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
· Frustration at not being able to hear others, TV, radio, etc.
· Certain sounds seeming overly loud
· Problems telling apart certain sounds such as “s” or “th”
· More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices
· Ringing in the ears
Why Is It Essential To Manage Age-Related Hearing Loss?
Beyond the obvious reduction in quality of life and risk of becoming socially isolated, growing evidence suggests that if left unmanaged, hearing loss can aid in the progression of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Researchers believe that the strain put on the brain to decode sound when hearing loss is left unmanaged is simply too much and overwhelms the brain. Another idea voiced by several studies is that social isolation, which is commonly experienced by people with hearing loss, may also aid in the progression of these conditions.
Can Age-Related Hearing Be Cured?
Sadly, no. Because the body is unable to regenerate hair cells, the damage is irreversible. However, using devices such as hearing aids, the condition can be managed. The first step is getting a hearing test at your doctor’s office or local hearing center. The test will show if you have any hearing loss and its severity. Many types of hearing aids are available, as are other helpful devices that amplify sound.
Hearing loss should not be ignored. It can and should be managed.
Joan McKechnie, who is HCPC Registered (Health Care Professions Council in the UK), works for Hampshire-based HearingDirect.com.