Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regretfully very high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million individuals report some degree of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s vital to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take preventive actions to prevent 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 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 form 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 form of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It results from injury to the hair cells (the 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, hit the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is provided to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as muffled or faint and normally impacts speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Also, unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is ordinarily permanent and cannot be remedied with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has a variety of possible causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (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 great news since it suggests that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t prevent aging, obviously, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should keep in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually happens very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so gradually that it can be just about impossible to detect.
A slight measure of hearing loss every year will not be very detectable to you, but after several years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So while you might believe 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 look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the television and radio volume to elevated levels
- Constantly asking others to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- 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 for a hearing test. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the earlier you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly 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 US could be avoided by adopting some simple protective measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with extended 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 harm your hearing.
Here are some tips on how you can reduce the risk of hearing loss:
- Implement 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, consider investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Safeguard your ears at concerts – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, far above the ceiling of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears at work – if you work in a loud profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – a number of household and leisure activities produce high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged 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 improve your conversations and relationships and can forestall any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you might have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and easy hearing test today!