Your chances of acquiring hearing loss at some point in your life are unfortunately quite high, even more so as you get older. In the United States, 48 million people report some degree of hearing loss, including nearly two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s crucial to understand hearing loss, so that you can recognize the symptoms and take protective measures to prevent 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
In general, there are three forms 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 is the result of some kind of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, 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 accounts for about 90 percent of all reported hearing loss. It is triggered by damage to the hair cells (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 outer ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at 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 supplied to the brain for processing is weakened.
This weakened signal is perceived as muffled or faint and normally affects speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Also, as opposed to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is generally permanent and cannot be remedied with medication or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has several potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- Aging (presbycusis)
The last two, exposure to loud noise and the aging process, account for the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly good news because it shows that most cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t prevent aging, of course, but you can minimize the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To fully grasp the symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should remember that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always develops very slowly. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly and gradually that it can be virtually impossible to detect.
A small amount of hearing loss every year will not be very noticeable to you, but after several years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So while you might think everybody is mumbling, it could very well be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for:
- Trouble understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to excess levels
- Frequently asking other people to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears
- Becoming exceedingly exhausted at the end of the day
If you detect any of these symptoms, or have had people tell you that you might have hearing loss, it’s best to schedule a hearing exam. Hearing tests are fast and pain-free, and the sooner you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is good news since it is without question the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of instances 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. Which means 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 protect against hearing loss:
- Implement the 60/60 rule – when listening to a portable music player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Additionally, think about investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Shield your ears at concerts – 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 in the workplace – if you work in a loud occupation, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Protect your hearing at home – a number of household and recreational activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you currently have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can substantially improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can forestall any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you may have sensorineural hearing loss, book your quick and simple hearing test today!