According to The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), estimates put the US population of hard of hearing people at close to 48 million. Within this group, the biggest are comprise are those over 65, where the likely cause of hearing loss is directly linked to changes due to aging in the body. For this reason, it is described as ‘age related hearing loss’. In this article we will describe how age related hearing loss occurs, its typical symptoms and ways to manage it.
The cochlea, one of the main structures of the human inner ear, contains small structures called hair cells. (They have nothing to do with hair, but are so called as they have hair like structures protruding from their tops when viewed under a microscope). Hair cells are found in great numbers within the cochlea; and they are help to transfer information contained within incoming sound to the brain for interpretation. As the body ages, as early as ones forties, the structure and functioning of hair cells can deteriorate. As more and more hair cells are affected, the effects on hearing are more and more noticeable. Hair cells can also be damaged due to prolonged exposure to harmful noise levels; which is a type of hearing loss called ‘noise induced hearing loss’. The body is unable to regrow or repair the hair cells, meaning in that any resultant hearing loss is permanent in there is currently no medical cure.
Because the rate of hair cell deterioration varies across individuals, not everyone experiences all the common symptoms. Generally speaking, individuals first start to notice that they find it difficult to understand people when they’re in a noisy place. Other symptoms include:
- Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
- Feeling that people often mumble
- Certain sounds seeming overly loud
- Problems telling apart certain sounds such as “s” or “th”
- More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices
- Ringing in the ears
It is important to treat hearing loss, beyond the obvious effects it has on quality of life. In recent years several studies have linked the risk of unmanaged hearing loss to the progression of dementia. The studies all discuss the negative impact that social isolation has on an individual’s cognitive ability. This social isolation is very commonly experienced by older people with hearing loss. Additionally, they point out the additional stress that the brain is under when hearing loss is left unmanaged.
Any management plan for hearing loss should begin by having a hearing test. These are available and in many cases for free, on the high street at any reputable hearing center. An individual’s hearing levels are measured and compared against normal hearing. If hearing loss is present, the audiologist will further investigate the cause(s). Management of hearing loss aims to reduce the impact on day-to-day activity. It will include the following:
Self-Help – Tell people you have hearing loss so they are more aware of why you may ask for repetition. You may also find it useful to sit closer to the speaker or sound source.
Hearing Aids – These devices provide additional amplification to the ear. They aim to compensate for the lost functioning of the hair cells and make the most of residual hearing ability. These days, hearing aids use mostly digital sound processing and are fitted either behind the ear or inside the ear canal. You may also come across amplified phones, mobiles, alarms, and many more useful devices that aim to amplify one specific sound source.
If you or someone you care for experience signs of hearing loss, you should discuss it with your doctor or book a hearing test.
Article by Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hampshire based HearingDirect.com. Joan is HCPC Registered (Health Care Professions Council in the UK).