Your chances of developing hearing loss at some time in your life are unfortunately quite high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss, including almost 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 symptoms and take protective measures to reduce damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to zero in on the most widespread form of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three forms of hearing loss
In general, there are three types 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 caused by some kind of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Frequent causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, 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 form of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It results from damage 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 the external ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is delivered 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. Additionally, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss tends to be permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has varied 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
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and aging, constitute the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly great news since it shows that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually comes about very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms progress so slowly and gradually that it can be just about impossible to perceive.
A small measure of hearing loss each year will not be very recognizable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So although you might think that everybody is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Trouble following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to unreasonable levels
- Continuously 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 detect 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 easy and pain-free, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is good news because it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the US could be prevented 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 extended 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 damage your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Also think about purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the threshold of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that preserve the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears on the job – if you work in a high-volume occupation, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect 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 already 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 forestall any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you suspect that you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and simple hearing test today!