Your chances of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately very high, even more so as you grow older. In the United States, 48 million people report some extent of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the signs and symptoms and take precautionary actions to avoid injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to concentrate on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three forms of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is triggered by some type of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and genetic malformations of the ear.
This article will focus on sensorineural hearing loss as it is by far the most 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 damage to the hair cells (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 outer ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, as a result of destruction to the hair cells (the very small 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 usually affects speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and can’t be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has various possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head injuries
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, represent the most widespread causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually great news since it means that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can regulate the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should remember that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always develops very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be nearly impossible to notice.
A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very perceptible to you, but after many years it will be very apparent to your family and friends. So while you might believe everyone is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to unreasonable levels
- Continuously asking other people to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling exceedingly tired at the end of the day
If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to schedule a hearing exam. Hearing tests are fast and painless, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to maintain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is good news because it is by far 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 higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with long-term exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. As a result, at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could impair your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can prevent hearing loss:
- Apply 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. Additionally, think about investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the limit of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at your workplace – if you work in a high-volume profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – Several household and recreational 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 hope 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 forestall any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!