Your chances of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are regretfully quite high, even more so as you age. In the United States, 48 million people report some degree of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the symptoms and take protective actions to prevent damage to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to concentrate on the most common form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and results from some kind of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Typical causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and hereditary malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most 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 results from damage 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 the external ear, hit 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 directed to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally impacts speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast 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 several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The final two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually good news because it means that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can minimize the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To fully grasp the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so gradually that it can be nearly impossible to detect.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very apparent 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 a few of the signs and symptoms to look for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to unreasonable levels
- Consistently asking others to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming exceedingly tired at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange a hearing test. Hearing tests are easy and painless, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is without question the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the United States could be avoided by adopting some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially affect 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 impair your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Employ 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 maximum volume. Also think about purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, significantly 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 at work – if you work in a loud profession, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a variety of household and recreational activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. 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 substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!