What is Age Related Hearing Loss?
There is no cure for age related hearing loss. The damage is permanent and therefore treatment is focused on improving everyday function while preventing further damage.
Hearing loss is not one of those health problems that jump into your mind when you think about the challenges of being middle aged. Age related hearing loss is an issue that we tend to ignore until one day it suddenly occurs to your family or yourself that every time they talk to you, your response is, “Huh?” or, “Excuse me?”
Hearing loss does not usually present itself along with other health issues so commonly associated with middle age. Hearing loss is considered an affliction of ‘old people’. Actually, age related hearing loss starts much earlier than might be expected.
How does hearing loss occur?
Hearing loss has many causes including:
- Long term exposure to loud noises
- Exposure to sudden, high impact loud noises
- Auto immune diseases
Constant exposure to loud music was long ago proven to cause premature hearing loss. Continued use of headphones with i Pods and MP3 players or other such music devices if played loudly enough over extended periods of time is believed to cause hearing loss at any age.
Soldiers with even limited exposure to explosive devices have been found to end up with permanent hearing loss. Noise induced hearing loss along with industrial hearing loss can begin to show immediately or slowly over time.
Age related hearing loss is the gradual loss of not only volume but the ability to distinguish between sounds, more accurately, to separate sounds. Imagine this: I can hear you; I just don’t know what you are saying. That is how many afflicted with age related hearing loss describe the problem.
When does age related hearing loss start?
Age related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is the slow loss of hearing that occurs as people get older. For some it can start as early as the mid thirties, getting gradually worse with time and environment. While loud music or other environmental factors can cause hearing loss, the typical and gradual hearing loss related to aging is one of the most common and difficult types of hearing loss to control and to accept due to the added stigma of becoming ‘old’.
How does age related hearing loss occur?
Tiny hairs inside your ear help you hear. They pick up sound waves and change them into the nerve signals that the brain then translates into sound. Hearing loss occurs when those tiny hairs inside the ear are damaged or die. The hair cells do not re-grow, which is why most hearing loss is permanent.
There is no known single cause for age related hearing loss. Most commonly, it is caused by changes in the inner ear that occur as we grow older. Genes and loud noises such as blaring music from rock concerts or headphones may play a large role.
Many soldiers are left with permanent hearing loss as a result of explosive devices whether or not they ever engage in active duty. Sometimes, just Basic Training can leave a soldier with permanent damage.
It is also possible to experience none of these events and still lose your hearing, gradually over many years without even realizing it.
What are the indications of age related hearing loss to the patient?
- Some sounds seem overly loud and annoying
- Difficulty separating sounds in noisy areas with many background sounds (huge problem)
- High pitched sounds are hard to distinguish from one another or
- Low pitched sounds are hard to distinguish from one another
- Male or deep voices are easier to understand than a woman’s higher pitched voice or vice verse
- Other people’s voices sound mumbled or slurred
- Ringing in the ears that may interfere with other background sounds
The loss of hearing occurs slowly over time. For some, it is most difficult to hear high frequency sounds, such as someone talking. As hearing gets worse, it may become difficult to hear sounds at lower pitches. However, some people might experience the exact opposite and have more difficulty understanding lower pitched voices and sounds than the higher ones.
What are the indications to family, friends and co-workers that the patient has age related hearing loss?
- Frequent requests for you to repeat what you just said
- Patient looks puzzled as if to say, “Huh? What did you say?”
- Patient turns one ear or the other to you hoping that will make a difference
How is aged related hearing loss diagnosed?
A complete physical exam should be performed to rule out medical conditions that can cause hearing loss. Your doctor will use an instrument called an Otoscope to look into your ears. Sometimes, wax can block the ear canals and cause hearing loss. It’s important to start with the basics that may eliminate medical conditions that could be treated to possibly prevent further hearing loss.
If your primary care physician can find no biological cause for your hearing loss you may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor and a hearing specialist (audiologist) who will perform hearing tests that can help determine the extent of your hearing loss.
It is also very important to establish a baseline of your hearing at this point which an audiologist will do for you. This will help to determine if there is a steady decline in your hearing.
What is the treatment for age related hearing loss?
There is no cure for age-related hearing loss. The damage is permanent and therefore treatment is focused on improving everyday function while preventing further damage.
The following may be helpful:
One of the hardest things to make others understand is that SHOUTING DOESN’T HELP!
What can be done to help the hearing impaired?
If you know someone who has age related hearing loss or if you have age related hearing loss, here are some steps to help make communication better:
- Talk to the person face to face
- Don’t hide your mouth, talk while eating, drinking or chewing gum
- Talk clearly, slightly emphasizing each word so they do not all run together
- If asked to repeat something, try using different words or make sure you repeat very, very clearly
- Don’t try to hold a conversation with them from another room
- Speak slowly and clearly when in crowed, noisy places
- Do not shout or raise your voice unless volume is an issue
- Don’t blame the hearing impaired because they can not hear you
- Be patient; ask how you can help or how you can talk more clearly
Why do some people resist getting help for age related hearing loss?
- Money – many insurance companies do not cover the cost
- Doubting effectiveness of hearing aids
- Fear of looking old
- Fear of being treated as an invalid
Hearing aid costs vary widely but even a cheap hearing aid can be very pricey and insurance usually does not cover the cost of the equipment, maintenance or batteries. While most doctor visits and testing may be covered, the actual hearing aid usually is not. You must check with your own insurance provider to determine what may be covered by your plan.
There are so many strange claims on television of the $20.00 hearing devices that can help you hear what your neighbor across the street is saying, but do they work? The cost of a medically approved hearing aid can be $1,000 or more – what do you think a $20 device is going to do for someone with age related hearing loss?
A hearing aid will make me look old! In this competitive job market, I can’t afford to look old. The reality is you can’t afford to look like you’re ignoring the boss, either! Your sharp mind will make anyone quickly forget about that hearing aid.
If I wear a hearing aid everyone will think I am an invalid, sick or deaf. You may already be thought of that way because they know you can’t hear them – you keep asking them to repeat themselves!
It’s time to see the doctor and find out what you have been missing!
If your primary care physician recommends and audiologist who in turn recommends a product for you, make sure that purchase includes adjustments, product upgrades and replacements or you could be stuck with a very expensive dust collector.
More Resources for Hearing Loss:
- NIH Senior Health – Health and wellness information for older adults from the National Institutes of Health
- American Speech Language Hearing Association
- Medline Plus – A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine