Age-related hearing loss is a hearing impairment that occurs gradually as a person ages. Most experts believe it is caused by a decline in nerve function as the individual ages.
The cochlea is a snail-shell-shaped structure within the ear. It generates the first electrical impulse for hearing. With aging, there is often a loss of cells that pick up the tones, particularly in the high-frequency portion of the cochlea. As these cells are damaged, they lose their ability to transmit sound in the form of pitches. This causes a high-frequency hearing loss.
An individual with this type of hearing loss has trouble deciphering higher-frequency sounds. These include the consonants f, s, t, p, k, and ch. Age-related hearing loss is usually so gradual that a person may not know that it has happened.
Some signs are: if another person complains that the older person cannot hear him or her speakingif the older person finds it hard to hear conversation when there is background noiseif the older person has frequent ringing in the earsif the older person turns up the volume on the television so that it is too loud for othersif the older person reports that a hearing aid makes someone's voice louder, but cannot understand the person any better than before
Someone with ringing in the ears may also have changes in his or her equilibrium, or balance. The person may experience dizziness and feel "off balance." The person is at risk for falls and injuries. The main cause of age-related hearing loss is thought to be an accumulation of noise trauma over time. People who have noisy jobs or hobbies are at greater risk.
The degree of hearing loss varies from person to person. There also are families who have inherited deafness that begins in middle age. This suggests that genetics plays a role in some cases of hearing loss. Other causes of hearing loss may include: allergiesotitis, or ear infectionsthyroid disordersuse of certain antibiotics, aspirin, and diuretics, or "water pills"
A person's genetic makeup cannot be changed. But it is important to limit the amount of noise that enters the inner ear. Some helpful measures include: maintaining a normal volume for music and other forms of entertainmentwearing foam earplugs or earmuffs when mowing the lawn or using power equipmentwearing protective earplugs in noisy environments
People with age-related hearing loss often suffer from social isolation. Hearing loss can aggravate some forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer disease. Hearing loss is diagnosed with a hearing test, or audiogram. This test can determine whether the hearing loss is due to nerve dysfunction or changes within the ear. Hearing tests also can tell a healthcare professional how much hearing loss has occurred and whether a hearing aid may be beneficial.
Unfortunately, there are no medical treatments for age-related hearing loss. Hearing aids are the mainstay of treatment, although their contribution is limited, especially if the individual has difficulty discriminating sounds. This is why it is important to prevent hearing loss whenever possible.