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Age-Related Hearing Loss: Is It Preventable?

By Kristen Gasnick
Medically Reviewed by Jordan Glicksman, MD, FRCSC, MPH on February 09, 2021
Age-related hearing loss affects between one-third and one-half of all older adults over the age of 65. Learn what causes age-related hearing loss and how it can be prevented and treated.

Age-related hearing loss, also called presbycusis, is a decrease in the ability to hear clearly that can occur as a part of the natural aging process.You may not notice its effects because age-related hearing loss occurs gradually over time.

According to Anil K. Lalwani, MD, director of the Division of Otology, Neurotology, and Skull Base Surgery and co-director of the Cochlear Implant Program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, age-related hearing loss progresses slowly, at a rate of 1 to 2 decibels per year.

Age-related hearing loss commonly affects both ears and begins by impairing your ability to detect high frequency sounds, especially speech when other background noise is present. These changes can begin as early as your 30s or 40s and can worsen over time. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 and 1 in 2 of those over the age of 85 experience some degree of hearing loss.

What Causes Age-Related Hearing Loss?

Age-related hearing loss can be caused by a variety of factors, and it is hard to attribute it to one specific reason. Genetic factors are thought to play a role in affecting whether age-related hearing loss occurs, at what age it begins and how severe it will become.

Conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes can also contribute to age-related hearing loss, as well as negative effects from certain medications, like chemotherapy drugs.

Environmental and lifestyle factors, such as chronic exposure to loud noise, smoking and heavy metal exposure, including mercury and lead, also worsen age-related hearing loss and can make it occur at a faster rate.

Is It Preventable?

While it is difficult to completely prevent age-related hearing loss, Shannon Basham, senior director of audiology and education at Phonak, says there are steps you can take to prevent ear damage from loud noises that can make age-related hearing loss worse and occur at a younger age. These include:

  • Limiting exposure to loud music, especially through headphones
  • Decreasing exposure to loud equipment like snowmobiles, lawnmowers and leaf blowers
  • Reducing the amount of time exposed to loud noises
  • Protecting your ears with ear plugs or ear muffs when exposed to loud noises

Hearing Loss Can Be Treated and Managed.

Age-related hearing loss can negatively impact your quality of life, so it is important that you seek help from a healthcare provider, such as your primary care physician, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), audiologist or hearing aid specialist.

Treatment options vary depending on the severity of your hearing loss and may include:

  • Hearing aids: Small electronic instruments that you wear behind your ear that amplify sounds to make them louder
  • Cochlear implants: Small electronic devices surgically implanted into the ear to help those with severe hearing loss
  • Assistive technology: Specialized devices like telephone amplifiers that enhance sounds to make hearing easier
  • Speech reading: Learning how to read lips when people talk to enhance your understanding