There is a common misconception that hearing loss is a condition only experienced by older adults. Hearing loss can and does affect the elderly – but it can also strike people of all ages. Here are some of the major factors that lead to hearing loss.
- Aging. By the age of 65, one out of three Americans will experience hearing loss. That number increases to one out of two by the age of 75. Presbycusis, the medical term for age-related hearing loss, occurs gradually as the hair cells in the cochlea degenerate over time. High frequencies are the first to go, meaning an individual might find it more difficult to understand women and children initially. Most people with presbycusis can be helped with hearing aids.
- Excessive noise exposure. Noise-induced hearing loss is the leading cause of hearing loss. Any prolonged exposure to loud noise (anything over 85 decibels is considered dangerous) can damage the hair cells in the inner ears, causing permanent hearing loss. Even experiencing an excessively loud noise, such as a gunshot or explosion, just once can lead to sudden, irreversible hearing loss. The good news is, hearing protection is very effective at preventing this type of hearing loss. Earplugs (especially ones that have been custom molded to the shape of your ears) and earmuffs should be worn during all activities in which loud noise occurs. These include rock concerts, sporting events, construction sites, while riding a motorcycle or snowmobile, etc.
- Injury to the head or ears. Head or ear trauma resulting from an accident can cause damage to the middle ear, leading to permanent hearing loss. Reconstructive surgery may be able to restore hearing in some cases, for instance, a perforated eardrum.
- Acoustic neuroma. A type of benign tumor known as an acoustic neuroma may not be an immediate health concern, but if it grows large enough it can put pressure on the middle ear, disrupting your hearing ability. These tumors can often be removed with surgery.
- Otosclerosis. This disease of the middle ear causes abnormal bone growth that interferes with hearing. It is usually treated successfully through surgery.
- Ear infection. Ear infections are common in children. Sometimes they are too common; chronic infections (known as otitis media) can damage the sensitive structures of your ears
- Earwax. Though earwax is harmless (and actually helps keep your ears clean), too much of a good thing can cause problems. If it becomes impacted, earwax can block the opening to the ear canal and prevent you from hearing normally.
- Ménière’s disease. This disease of the inner ear causes a number of problems that affect hearing and balance, including hearing loss, tinnitus, fullness in the ear and vertigo. Episodes can last anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours. Hearing loss may be temporary and intermittent at first, but gradually worsens over time. Medications may help control symptoms, but the disorder has no cure.
- Ototoxic medications. Certain drugs – especially antibiotics, diuretics, chemotherapy medications and salicylates – can cause hearing loss that may be temporary or permanent.
Since most hearing loss develops gradually over time, it can be difficult to know how well you are hearing now compared with how well you used to hear. Only an accurate hearing test can reveal if you are having difficulty with specific sounds, and if so, how you might be able to hear better.