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 individuals report some level 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 identify the symptoms and take precautionary measures to reduce damage to your hearing. In this article, we’re going to zero in on the most widespread type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types 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 results from some form of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Typical causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and hereditary 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 accounts for about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It results from damage to the hair cells (the 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 the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and reach the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, because of destruction to the hair cells (the tiny nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is supplied to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and normally has an effect on speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and cannot be corrected with medicine 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
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, 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 prevent aging, of course, but you can regulate the collective exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should always remember that injury to the nerve cells of hearing almost always unfolds very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly and gradually that it can be just about impossible to notice.
A slight amount of hearing loss each year will not be very detectable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So although you may believe everyone is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excessive levels
- Frequently asking others to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Feeling excessively tired at the end of the day
If you detect any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to book a hearing test. Hearing tests are quick and pain-free, and the earlier you treat hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to retain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news because it is without question the most common type of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be averted by adopting some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound higher than 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially damage 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 some tips on how you can protect against hearing loss:
- Employ 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 maximum volume. Also think about buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at live shows – rock concerts can range from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the ceiling of safe volume (you could damage 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 on the job – if you work in a loud profession, talk to your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a number 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 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 improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any further consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you might have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and simple hearing test today!