Your odds of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regrettably quite high, even more so as you get older. In the United States, 48 million people report some extent of hearing loss, including just about two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s why it’s vital to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the symptoms and take protective actions to avoid injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
Generally speaking, 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 caused by some form of obstruction in the outer or middle ear. Common 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 category of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all reported 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 through the external ear, strike 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 supplied to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as faint or muffled and usually affects speech more than other types of lower-pitched sounds. Also, in contrast to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is typically permanent and can’t be corrected with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has varied potential 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 aging, represent the most frequent causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is actually good news as it suggests that most cases of hearing loss can be prevented (you can’t avoid aging, obviously, but you can limit the cumulative exposure to sound over your lifetime).
To fully understand the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should remember that damage to the nerve cells of hearing usually happens very slowly. Therefore, the symptoms progress so slowly that it can be virtually impossible to notice.
A small amount of hearing loss each year will not be very noticeable to you, but after several years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So even though 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 signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Problems following conversions, particularly with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
- Consistently asking others to repeat themselves
- Experiencing muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling exceedingly exhausted at the end of the day
If you notice any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you may have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to arrange a hearing exam. Hearing tests are quick and painless, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to maintain.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is largely preventable, which is great news since it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of cases of hearing loss in the United States could be prevented by adopting some simple precautionary measures.
Any sound above 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 impair 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 portable music player with headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume. Additionally, think about buying noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Shield your ears at live shows – rock concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, significantly above the limit of safe volume (you could injure your hearing within 15 minutes). Limit the volume with the aid of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears in the workplace – if you work in a loud occupation, talk with 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 extended exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all hope is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can dramatically improve your life. Hearing aids can enhance your conversations and relationships and can prevent any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think you may have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!