Your chances of developing hearing loss at some point in your life are regrettably very high, even more so as you get older. In the US, 48 million people report some degree of hearing loss, including almost two-thirds of adults age 70 and older.
That’s the reason it’s important to understand hearing loss, so that you can identify the symptoms and take precautionary measures to reduce injury to your hearing. In this blog post, we’re going to zero in on the most common type of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss.
The three types of hearing loss
In general, there are three types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a mix of sensorineural and conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is less common and is caused by some form of blockage in the outer or middle ear. Common causes of conductive hearing loss include impacted earwax, ear infections, benign tumors, perforated eardrums, and genetic malformations of the ear.
However, sensorineural hearing loss is far more common.
Sensorineural hearing loss
This type of hearing loss is the most common and makes up about 90 percent of all documented hearing loss. It is the result of damage to the hair cells (nerves of hearing) of the inner ear or to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain.
With sensorineural hearing loss, sound waves enter through the outer ear, strike the eardrum, and arrive at the inner ear (the cochlea and hair cells) as normal. However, on account of destruction to the hair cells (the very small nerve cells of hearing), the sound signal that is presented to the brain for processing is diminished.
This diminished signal is perceived as muffled or faint and usually has an effect on speech more than other kinds of lower-pitched sounds. Additionally, contrary to conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is generally permanent and cannot be corrected with medicine or surgery.
Causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss has various potential causes, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Family history of hearing loss
- Meniere’s Disease or other disorders
- Head trauma
- Benign tumors
- Direct exposure to loud noise
- The aging process (presbycusis)
The final two, exposure to loud noise and aging, constitute the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss, which is honestly great news because it means that the majority of cases of hearing loss can be avoided (you can’t avoid aging, of course, but you can limit the collective exposure to sound over the course of your lifetime).
To fully understand the signs and symptoms of sensorineural hearing loss, you should bear in mind that damage to the nerve cells of hearing almost always develops very gradually. Consequently, the symptoms advance so slowly that it can be virtually impossible to perceive.
A small amount of hearing loss every year will not be very noticeable to you, but after many years it will be very noticeable to your friends and family. So although you might believe everyone is mumbling, it might be that your hearing loss is catching up to you.
Here are a few of the symptoms to watch for:
- Difficulty understanding speech
- Difficulty following conversions, especially with more than one person
- Turning up the TV and radio volume to elevated levels
- Consistently asking others to repeat themselves
- Perceiving muffled sounds or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Becoming exceedingly exhausted at the end of the day
If you recognize any of these symptoms, or have had people inform you that you might have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to book a hearing exam. Hearing tests are easy and painless, and the earlier you treat your hearing loss the more hearing you’ll be able to preserve.
Prevention and treatment
Sensorineural hearing loss is mostly preventable, which is great news because it is by far the most common form of hearing loss. Millions of instances of hearing loss in the US could be averted by implementing some simple protective measures.
Any sound above 80 decibels (the volume of city traffic inside your car) can potentially harm your hearing with long-term exposure.
As the decibel level increases, the amount of time of safe exposure decreases. As a result, at 100 decibels (the volume of a rock concert), any exposure over 15 minutes could damage your hearing.
Here are a few tips on how you can prevent hearing loss:
- Apply the 60/60 rule – when listening to a mp3 player through headphones, listen for no more than 60 minutes at no more than 60 percent of the max volume. Additionally, think about investing in noise-canceling headphones, as these will require lower volumes.
- Protect your ears at live shows – concerts can vary from 100-120 decibels, far above the limit of safe volume (you could harm your hearing within 15 minutes). Minimize the volume with the use of foam earplugs or with musician’s plugs that maintain the quality of the music.
- Protect your ears on the job – if you work in a high-volume profession, check with your employer about its hearing protection program.
- Safeguard your hearing at home – a variety of household and leisure activities generate high-decibel sounds, including power saws, motorcycles, and firework displays. Make sure that you always use ear protection during prolonged exposure.
If you already have hearing loss, all is not lost. Hearing aids, while not able to completely restore your hearing, can significantly improve your life. Hearing aids can improve your conversations and relationships and can protect against any additional consequences of hearing loss.
If you think that you might have sensorineural hearing loss, schedule your quick and easy hearing test today!