Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some time in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 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 signs and symptoms and take preventative measures to avoid injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to concentrate on the most widespread type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three forms of hearing loss
In general, there are three forms 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 is caused by some type of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include ear infections, perforated eardrums, benign tumors, impacted earwax, and hereditary malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss is the most prevalent and accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is the result of 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 external ear, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of damage to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is delivered to the brain for processing is weakened.
This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually impacts speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is ordinarily permanent and cannot be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has multiple potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head injuries
- Benign tumors
- Exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, direct exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually good news because it shows that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t prevent 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 try to remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always happens very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly and gradually that it can be nearly impossible to perceive.
A small amount of hearing loss each year will not be very perceptible to you, but after a number of years it will be very noticeable to your family and friends. So although you may believe everybody is mumbling, it may be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the symptoms to watch for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
- Constantly asking other people to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s best to arrange a hearing test. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the sooner you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to maintain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be averted by implementing some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with chronic 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 a few 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 maximum volume. Additionally, consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at concerts – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the ceiling of safe volume (you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize 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 occupation, talk to 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. Make sure that you 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 enhance your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!