Listen up! Don't take your ears for granted. Hearing loss is the third most common health problem in the U.S, and it can affect the quality of your life and relationships. About 48 million Americans have lost some hearing.
Certain conditions, including age, illness, and genetics, may play a role in hearing loss. Modern life has added a host of ear-damaging elements to the list, including some medications and plenty of sources of loud, ongoing noise.
With so many untreatable cases of hearing loss, prevention is the best way to keep hearing long-term. If you've already lost some hearing, there are ways to stay connected and communicate with friends and family.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Advanced age is the most common cause of hearing loss. One out of three people age 65-74 has some level of hearing loss. After age 75, that goes up to one out of every two people.
Researchers don't fully understand why hearing declines with age. It could be that lifetime exposure to noise and other damaging factors slowly wear down the ears' delicate mechanics. Your genes are also part of the mix.
Noise wears down hearing if it's loud or continuous. In some workplaces, ears are exposed to dangerous noise levels every day. To understand the impact of noise, consider this: 44% of carpenters and 48% of plumbers report some hearing loss. Other noisy lines of work include the military, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.
Even musicians, who literally create music for our ears, are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Some now wear special earplugs to protect their ears when they perform. The earplugs allow them to hear music without harming their ears' inner workings.
Medications can impair hearing or balance. More than 200 drugs and chemicals have a track record of triggering hearing and balance side effects in addition to their disease-fighting abilities.
- Some antibiotics
- Some chemotherapy drugs
- Loop diuretics
- A drug used to treat malaria
- Several drugs for erectile dysfunction
Sudden hearing loss, the rapid loss of 30 decibels or more of hearing ability, can happen over several hours or days. (A normal conversation is 60 decibels.) In nine out of 10 cases, sudden hearing loss affects only one ear. Though there are about 4,000 new cases of sudden hearing loss a year, doctors figure out the cause only 10% to 15% of the time.
Illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes put ears at risk by interfering with the ears' blood supply. Otosclerosis is a bone disease of the middle ear, and Ménière's disease affects the inner ear. Both can cause hearing loss.
Trauma, especially a skull fracture or punctured eardrum, puts ears at serious risk for hearing loss.
Infection or ear waxcan block ear canals and lessen hearing.
Symptoms and Levels of Hearing Loss
In many cases, hearing fades so slowly you don't notice it. You may think that people are mumbling more, your spouse needs to speak up, and you need a better phone. As long as some sound still comes in, you could assume your hearing is fine. But you may become more and more cut off from the world of speech and sounds.
Doctors classify hearing loss by degrees.
- Mild hearing loss: One-on-one conversations are fine, but it's hard to catch every word when there's background noise.
- Moderate hearing loss: You often need to ask people to repeat themselves during conversations in person and on the phone.
- Severe hearing loss: Following a conversation is almost impossible unless you have a hearing aid.
- Profound hearing loss: You can't hear when other people speaking, unless they are extremely loud. You can't understand what they're saying without a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Early on, high-pitched sounds, such as children's and female voices, and the sounds "S" and "F" become harder to make out. You may also:
- Have trouble following a conversation when more than one person speaks at once
- Think other people are mumbling or not speaking clearly
- Often misunderstand what others say and respond inappropriately
- Get complaints that the TV is too loud
- Hear ringing, roaring, or hissing sounds in your ears, known as tinnitus
It depends on the type and source of your hearing loss. Prompt medical treatment for sudden hearing loss may raise your chance of recovery.
Surgery may reverse hearing loss caused by otosclerosis, scar tissue, or infection, while Ménière's disease is sometimes treatable with medication and a different diet.
Hearing loss caused by infection can often be cleared up with antibiotics.
If you think your hearing loss stems from medication use, talk with your doctor about drug options.
Most people with permanent hearing loss can benefit from a hearing aid -- yet only one in five people who could use them do. You typically wear these tiny instruments in or behind your ear to make sounds louder. Things do sound different through a hearing aid though, so you should talk with your doctor to set realistic goals.
Other sound-enhancing technologies include personal listening systems that allow you to tune in to what you want to hear and mute other sounds. TV-listening systems make it possible for you to hear the television or radio without turning the volume way up. Different kinds of phone-amplifying devices as well as captioned phones that let you read what your caller is saying make conversations possible on home and mobile phones.
Cochlear implants are used mainly with young children, but they're becoming more popular among older adults with profound hearing loss.
Living With Hearing Loss
For starters, set up your home so your rooms are well lit and places to sit face each other. When people talk, watch their mouths move as well as their facial expressions.
Remove avoidable sources of background noise. For instance, turn off the TV when no one's watching it.
Let people know what they can do to help you understand them better:
- Get your attention before they start talking.
- Make sure you can see their lips moving.
- Speak clearly, but don't shout.
Take Good Care of Your Ears
Hearing loss is often permanent, so do what you can to protect one of your most valuable natural assets.
Wear earplugs when you're around sounds as loud or louder than traffic. Lawn mowers, power sanders, vacuums, and most concerts are all loud enough to harm unprotected ears. When possible, move away from the source of the noise. For example, cross the street or cover your ears when you walk past a loud road construction site.
If you work in a noisy workplace, talk to your employer about ear safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that employers install barrier walls or mufflers in noisy plants to protect their workers' hearing.