The sense of hearing gives you the ability to enjoy your favorite music, helps you comprehend verbal communications, and can provide you with a deeper understanding of what is happening in your immediate environment. As we grow older, hearing loss becomes an extremely common condition. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively cope with age-related hearing loss. Some methods aid in mitigating the symptoms of hearing loss, while others focus on teaching new ways to communicate, intuitively using your other senses.
What Is Age-Related Hearing Loss?
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs in most of us as we grow older. It is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults.
Approximately one in three people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing. Having trouble hearing can make it hard to understand and follow a doctor’s advice, respond to warnings, and hear phones, doorbells, and smoke alarms. Hearing loss can also make it hard to enjoy talking with family and friends, leading to feelings of isolation.
Age-related hearing loss most often occurs in both ears, affecting them equally. Because the loss is gradual, if you have age-related hearing loss you may not realize that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear.
There are many causes of age-related hearing loss. Most commonly, it arises from changes in the inner ear as we age, but it can also result from changes in the middle ear, or from complex changes along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain. Certain medical conditions and medications may also play a role.
The Scientific Process of Hearing
Each time you hear something, an intricate process is occurring within your body. We are going to go over the process in steps.
- A noise is made causing sound waves to travel through the environment
- These waves enter your outer ear
- Then they travel through your ear canal
- Leading to your ear drum
- Your eardrum vibrates then transmits these movements to bones located in your middle ear
- These bones take the vibrations which initially emanated from the air and transfer them to the cochlea which changes them into fluid vibrations
- The cochlear, fluid vibrations travel to the hair cells atop the basilar membrane
- Microscopic structures atop the hair cells create a unique motion which opens up channels that enable neurochemicals to enter the cells
- This creates an electric signal which is carried by the auditory nerve directly to the brain
- Your brain interprets this for you into a comprehendible sound
Why Do We Lose Our Hearing as We Get Older?
Many factors can contribute to hearing loss as you get older. It can be difficult to distinguish age-related hearing loss from hearing loss that can occur for other reasons, such as long-term exposure to noise.
Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by long-term exposure to sounds that are either too loud or last too long. This kind of noise exposure can damage the sensory hair cells in your ear that allow you to hear. Once these hair cells are damaged, they do not grow back and your ability to hear is diminished.
Conditions that are more common in older people, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, can contribute to hearing loss. Medications that are toxic to the sensory cells in your ears (for example, some chemotherapy drugs) can also cause hearing loss.
Rarely, age-related hearing loss can be caused by abnormalities of the outer ear or middle ear. Such abnormalities may include reduced function of the tympanic membrane (the eardrum) or reduced function of the three tiny bones in the middle ear that carry sound waves from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear.
Most older people who experience hearing loss have a combination of both age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss.
Mitigating the Effects of Hearing Loss
Depending on the significance of your hearing loss, there are several ways to help combat it including:
- Hearing aids
- Assistive listening equipment
- Learning how to lip read
- Learning sign language
- Cochlear implants