Age- and noise-related hearing loss are common and can affect quality of life. But many treatments are available.
Hearing loss that comes on little by little as you age, also known as presbycusis, is common. More than half the people in the United States older than age 75 have some age-related hearing loss.
There are three types of hearing loss:
Aging and being around loud noises both can cause hearing loss. Other factors, such as too much earwax, can lower how well ears work for a time.
You usually can't get hearing back. But there are ways to improve what you hear.
Symptoms of hearing loss may include:
If you have a sudden loss of hearing, particularly in one ear, seek medical attention right away.
Talk to your health care provider if loss of hearing is causing you trouble. Age-related hearing loss happens little by little. So you may not notice it at first.
To understand how hearing loss happens, it can be helpful to understand how hearing works.
The ear has three main parts: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear and cause the eardrum to vibrate. The eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear make the vibrations bigger as they travel to the inner ear. There, the vibrations pass through fluid in a snail-shaped part of the inner ear, known as the cochlea.
Attached to nerve cells in the cochlea are thousands of tiny hairs that help turn sound vibrations into electrical signals. The electrical signals are transmitted to the brain. The brain turns these signals into sound.
Causes of hearing loss include:
Damage to the inner ear. Aging and loud noise can cause wear and tear on the hairs or nerve cells in the cochlea that send sound signals to the brain. Damaged or missing hairs or nerve cells don't send electrical signals well. This causes hearing loss.
Higher pitched tones may seem muffled. It may be hard to pick out words against background noise.
The middle ear has three small bones — the hammer, or malleus; the anvil, or incus; and the stirrup, or stapes. The eardrum keeps the bones away from the outer ear. A narrow path called the eustachian tube joins the middle ear to the back of the nose and upper part of the throat. The cochlea, a snail-shaped structure, is part of your inner ear.
Factors that damage or lead to loss of the hairs and nerve cells in the inner ear include:
The chart below lists common sounds and their decibel levels. A decibel is a unit used to measure how loud sound is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says noise above 70 decibels over time can start to damage hearing. The louder the noise, the less time it takes to cause lasting hearing damage.
|Sound levels of common noises|
|85||Heavy city traffic, school cafeteria|
|110||Jackhammer, rock concert, symphony|
|120||Ambulance siren, thunder|
Below are the loudest noise levels people can be around on a job without hearing protection and for how long.
|Maximum job-noise exposure allowed by law|
|Sound level, decibels||Duration, daily|
|Based on The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2018.|
|115||15 minutes or less|
Hearing loss can make life less pleasant. Older adults with hearing loss often report being depressed. Because hearing loss can make it harder to talk with others, some people with hearing loss feel cut off from others. Hearing loss is also linked to loss of thinking skills, known as cognitive impairment.
Hearing loss also is linked to risk of falling.
The following steps can help prevent hearing loss from loud noises and keep hearing loss from aging from getting worse:
Tests to diagnose hearing loss may include:
You can get help for hearing problems. Treatment depends on the cause of the hearing loss and how bad it is.
Cochlear implants. When a regular hearing aid isn't likely to help much, a cochlear implant might be an option. A cochlear implant isn't like a hearing aid that makes sound stronger and directs it into the ear canal. Instead, a cochlear implant goes around the parts of the inner ear that don't work to spur the hearing nerve.
An audiologist and a health care provider trained in the ears, nose and throat (ENT) can tell you the risks and benefits.
Hearing aids use these parts to help direct sound into the ear and make it stronger. Hearing aids use batteries for power. They also have a microphone to pick up sound, an amplifier to make sound stronger and a speaker to send sound into the ear. Some hearing aids also have a volume control or a program button.
These tips can help you stay connected with hearing loss:
If you think you have hearing loss, call your health care provider. Your provider might refer you to a hearing specialist, also known as an audiologist.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
For hearing loss, some questions to ask include:
Your health care provider might ask you questions, including: