When you watch television, does it seem that everyone is mumbling? Do you find yourself following the plot line of your favorite TV show by watching it rather than listening to it? If the answers are yes you may be suffering from age related hearing loss.
Age related hearing loss is exactly what the name implies; hearing loss caused by aging. The clinical name for the condition is presbycusis. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders1 estimates that one in every three people between the ages of 65 and 74 suffers with hearing loss. Nearly half of those over the age of 75 have trouble hearing. Usually, age related hearing loss occurs in both ears and affects the ability to hear high-pitched sounds rather than low pitched ones. There is no cure but there are ways to enhance the hearing that remains.
The ear is a complex organ that captures sound and transmits it over nerve endings to the brain, where it is translated for understanding. It is made up of the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. These organs work together to convert sound waves into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. Age related hearing loss most usually impacts the inner ear where sound waves become electrical nerve impulses. 2
The causes of age related hearing loss vary according to the individual but the most common ones are:
- Natural aging of the hearing function: Physicians3 are not clear about the exact process that causes physical aging to the ear and its bones, tissues, membranes and nerves. They do know it is a general degeneration of the cells in the ear.
- Changes caused by medication: Cells in the ear can be damaged by some medications including antibiotics and those taken for blood pressure, heart disease or cancer.
- Noise induced hearing loss: Sustained exposure to high decibels of noise over a long period of time is a well-known cause of hearing loss. Damage caused by high decibel noise at a younger age may not be noticed until one is older. For example, individuals may experience hearing loss as they age if they:
- Listened to loud music through headphones over a long period of time
- Worked in loud environments
- Repeatedly attended events with high decibel noise levels like music concerts
Age related hearing loss occurs slowly over the course of time. The signs and symptoms emerge slowly as well and some may be noticed more than others. They can include:
- Trouble hearing conversations in noisy environments, i.e., restaurants
- Repeatedly asking people to repeat themselves
- Noticing that speech is difficult to hear on the television
- When in conversation with others, people sound like they are mumbling
- Sensitivity to some sounds
- Ringing in the ears
- The television volume has to be higher in order to understand what is being said
- Begin to avoid social interactions because of problems hearing conversations
Age related hearing loss cannot be stopped but it can be treated after being diagnosed. A primary care physician can provide a referral to an otolaryngologist, commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who can diagnose hearing loss. A professional audiologist can then perform highly specific tests to determine the type and extent of the hearing loss. These tests are important to get the right treatment.
Hearing aids are highly effective in addressing age related hearing loss. These advanced medical devices fit the ear, address the type of hearing loss and the lifestyle needs of the individual. After testing and assessment, the audiologist will recommend the best hearing aid to compensate for the hearing loss. Other devices that amplify sound levels on the phone or that convert audio into text can help, as well.
It’s important to have hearing loss diagnosed and treated. Its impact reaches far beyond trouble hearing the television. Hearing loss can become a safety issue if alarms and horns can no longer be heard. It may cause balance issues that can lead to dangerous trips and falls.
When speaking to someone with hearing loss, there are several important guidelines to follow that can make it easier for them to hear.
- Reduce background noise so the person only has to concentrate on what you are saying.
- Don’t shout. Instead, speak with a clear voice at a higher than normal level.
- Face the person while speaking and keep your mouth free – don’t cover it with your hand.
- Use gestures to help illustrate what you are saying.
- Alert the person that you want to talk to them by first addressing them by their name, then begin the conversation.
The most important takeaway is to protect one’s ears from loud noise in order to protect hearing. However, if age related hearing loss does occur, seek diagnosis and treatment. Enhancing remaining levels of hearing can improve quality of life and reduce the risk of falls.