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What causes hearing loss and how to deal with it

Hearing loss is something that is very common in seniors. Many will experience gradually losing their ability to hear the same way they used to.

The age-related hearing loss will occur to most people and is also known as presbycusis. It is one of the most common conditions to affect seniors and elderly adults.

"Approximately one in three people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 suffers from hearing loss"

The age-related hearing loss will most often occur in both ears, affecting them equally. Because this type of hearing happens gradually, you might not even notice, that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear. But not being able to hear can make it hard for you to enjoy socializing with other people. 

You might be wondering what causes this type of hearing loss. Well, the most likely explanation is, that it arises from changes to the inner ear. However, it can also stem from complex changes along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain as well as changes to the inner ear. Certain medical conditions and medications can also be a contributing factor and play a crucial role.

How do we then hear?

Our hearing is dependent on a series of events. These events then change sound waves, in the air, into electrical signals. The auditory nerve then carries these signals to the brain through a complex series of steps.

picture of ear explaining hearing loss

First, sound waves enter the outer ear and travel through a narrow passageway called the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum.

Second, the eardrum vibrates from the incoming sound waves and sends these vibrations to three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes.

Third, the bones in the middle ear couple the sound vibrations from the air to fluid vibrations in the cochlea of the inner ear. This is shaped like a snail and filled with fluid. An elastic partition runs from the beginning to the end of the cochlea, splitting it into an upper and lower part. This partition is called the basilar membrane. It serves as the base, or ground floor, on which key hearing structures sit.

Fourth, when the vibrations cause the fluid inside the cochlea to ripple, a traveling waveform along the basilar membrane. Hair cells-sensory cells sitting on top of the basilar membrane ride the wave.

Fifth, as the hair cells move up and down, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal.

Sixth, the auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which turns it into a sound that we recognize and understand.

senior woman worried about hearing loss

Are you loosing your hearing?

Many factors can be contributing to hearing loss, as we grow older.

"Sometimes it can be quite difficult to distinguish age-related haring loss from hearing loss cased based on long-term exposure to noise"

A noise-induced hearing loss is caused by long-term exposure to loud noises or noises that last too long. With exposure to loud noises, you are likely to damage the sensory hairs in your ear. Once these are damaged, they do not grow back. This is also what will cause your hearing to deteriorate.

Other factors that can also contribute to the loss of your hearing are high blood pressure and diabetes. You should also be aware that some medications are toxic to the sensory hairs in your ears, for instance, chemotherapy drugs.

The most common thing for seniors to experience is the combination of both age-related hearing loss and exposure to loud noises hearing loss.

If you feel your hearing is getting worse, you should talk to your doctor. They will conduct some tests, which can determine the state of your hearing.

Can I do anything to prevent hearing loss?

The short answer, no.

senior man suffering from hearing loss

At this point in time, scientists do not know how to prevent age-related hearing loss. Preventing hearing loss that stems from exposure to loud noises, can be prevented by using hearing protection. This is a life-long thing and something that should be an ongoing process.

It is also important to be aware of the different sources of damaging noises. This includes loud music, firearms, snowmobiles, lawn mowers, and leaf blowers.

Hearing loss treatment, what are the choices?

First of all, depending on the severity and type of hearing loss so does the treatment. There are a number of devices and aids that can help you hear better when you are suffering from hearing loss. The most common one is the hearing aid.

"Hearing aids are electronic instruments you wear in or behind your ear. Their function is to make sounds louder, thus making it easier for you to hear"

As there are different types of hearing aid, it is important to do your research and try out the different options.

If you are losing your ability to hear properly you can resort to other actions to “listen” to what people are saying.

hearing aid in ear

What are the alternatives to hearing properly?

Lip-reading or speech reading, are both good alternatives. Using these to options will need you to pay close attention to the person talking, and being observant of their lip, and body, movements. Special trainers can help you learn how to lip-read or speech read.

Another option could be the Cochlear implants. However, you can only get these, if you are deaf or very hard-of-hearing. It is something that your doctor needs to prescribe as it is implanted via surgery. Typically you will get one in each ear.

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