Hearing loss is a common condition that affects one out of three people by the age of 65. It’s not just a disease of the elderly, however; it’s becoming increasingly common in younger people who are exposed to excessive noise levels. Taking steps early to protect hearing can prevent individuals from developing a hearing impairment in the future.
Hearing loss is any degree of impairment in the ability to comprehend sound. For hearing to occur, sound waves pass through the external, middle and inner ear, where they are translated into nerve impulses and sent to the brain, which then interprets those signals as sound. Any interruption to this process can cause a partial or total loss of hearing.
The main factors that contribute to hearing loss are natural aging (presbycusis) and exposure to loud noises. Other conditions that can cause hearing impairment include earwax buildup, ear infections, injury, medical conditions such as Meniere’s disease and otosclerosis, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Signs of hearing loss include muffled speech, difficulty understanding words (especially when background noise is a distraction), frequently asking others to repeat themselves, turning up the volume on the television or radio and social withdrawal. Symptoms often appear so gradually patients are unaware of a problem until a family member or friend points it out.
Hearing loss is divided into two categories: conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is the result of problems that involve the middle ear and is usually curable. It is caused by ear infections, earwax accumulations, trauma to the ear and abnormalities or growths. Medications, surgery and earwax removal may all be effective, depending on the circumstances.
Sensorineural hearing loss involves damage to the inner ear and, while rarely curable, is often successfully treated with hearing aids (or, in some cases, cochlear implants). It is the result of nerve damage from noise exposure, viruses and diseases and hereditary factors. A third type – mixed hearing loss – occurs when patients experience a combination of the other two types.
Taking measures to prevent hearing loss now can pay off down the road. While there is little an individual can do about presbycusis, protecting the ears from noise exposure in the workplace and in social settings (e.g., concerts and sporting events) is easily accomplished using earplugs and other types of hearing protection. Prompt treatment of ear infections and keeping current on immunizations can help prevent hearing loss in children. Swimmers and surfers should take extra care to keep their ears free of water with custom earplugs designed to prevent moisture from entering the ear canals.