What? When age affects hearing: Age-related hearing loss

man with hearing device

While there are many types of hearing loss, “presbycusis” is specifically loss of hearing that is due to aging and can affect older adults. Read on to learn more about this age-related hearing loss and what can be done if you or someone you love suffers from the condition.

What is age-related hearing loss?

Age-related hearing loss, also known as “presbycusis,” is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs as a person grows older. It is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults.

Approximately one in three people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing. Having trouble hearing can make it hard to understand and follow a doctor’s advice, respond to warnings, and hear important things like the phone, doorbells, and smoke alarms. Hearing loss can also make it hard to enjoy talking with family and friends, which can then cause the person suffering from the condition to feel isolated.

Age-related hearing loss most often occurs in both ears, affecting them both equally. Because the loss is gradual, a person that has age-related hearing loss might not realize it until he or she has some of ability to hear.

What causes age-related hearing loss?

There are many causes of age-related hearing loss. Most commonly, it arises from changes in the inner ear as people age, but it can also result from changes in the middle ear or from complex changes along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain. Certain medical conditions and medications can also play a role.

Many factors can contribute to hearing loss as people age. At times, it can be difficult to distinguish age-related hearing loss from hearing loss that can occur for other reasons, such as long-term exposure to noise (also known as “noise-induced” hearing loss).

Conditions that are more common in older people, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, can contribute to hearing loss. Medications that are toxic to the sensory cells in your ears (for example, some chemotherapy drugs) can also cause hearing loss.

Rarely, age-related hearing loss can be caused by abnormalities of the outer ear or middle ear. Such abnormalities may include reduced function of the tympanic membrane (the eardrum) or reduced function of the three tiny bones in the middle ear that carry sound waves from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear.

Most older people who experience hearing loss have a combination of both age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss.

Can age-related hearing loss be prevented?

At this time, scientists don’t know how to prevent age-related hearing loss. However, you can protect yourself from noise-induced hearing loss by protecting your ears from sounds that are too loud and last too long. It’s important to be aware of potential sources of damaging noises, such as loud music, firearms, snowmobiles, lawn mowers, and leaf blowers. Avoiding loud noises, reducing the amount of time you’re exposed to loud noise, and protecting your ears with ear plugs or earmuffs are easy things that can be done to protect your hearing and limit the amount of hearing you might lose as you get older.

What can be done about age-related hearing loss?

Hearing problems can be serious. The most important thing to do if a hearing problem is suspected is to seek advice from a health care provider. There are several types of professionals who can help: a primary care physician, or a specialist such as an otolaryngologist, an audiologist, or a hearing aid specialist. Each of these medical professionals has unique training and expertise, as outlined below:

  • An otolaryngologist (oh-toe-lair-in-GAH-luh-jist) is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the ear, nose, throat, and neck. An otolaryngologist, sometimes called an ENT, will try to find out why you’re having trouble hearing and offer treatment options. He or she may also refer you to another hearing professional, an audiologist.
  • An audiologist (aw-dee-AH-luh-jist) has specialized training in identifying and measuring the type and degree of hearing loss. Some audiologists may be licensed to fit hearing aids.
  • A hearing aid specialist is someone who is licensed by your state to conduct and evaluate basic hearing tests, offer counseling, and fit and test hearing aids.

Each of the specialists mentioned can play an important role in caring for someone with hearing loss.

What treatments and devices can help with age-related hearing loss?

Treatment will depend on the severity of your hearing loss. Some treatments work better for some people than others. There are a number of devices and aids that help a person with age-related hearing loss to hear better. Listed below are the most common ones:

  • Hearing aids are electronic instruments that are worn in behind the ear. They make sounds louder. To find the hearing aid that works best, sometime more than one must be tried out. Always ask for a trial period with any hearing aid, and be sure to understand the terms and conditions of the trial period. A hearing aid provider should help teach how to put on and remove the hearing aid, adjust the volume level, and change the batteries. Hearing aids are generally not covered by health insurance companies, although some do. Medicare does not cover hearing aids for adults; however, diagnostic evaluations are covered if they are ordered by a physician for the purpose of assisting the physician in developing a treatment plan.
  • Cochlear implants. Cochlear (COKE-lee-ur) implants are small electronic devices surgically implanted in the inner ear that help provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or hard-of-hearing. If hearing loss is severe, the doctor might recommend a cochlear implant in one or both ears.
  • Bone-anchored hearing systems bypass the ear canal and middle ear, and are designed to use the body’s natural ability to transfer sound through bone conduction. The sound processor picks up sound, converts it into vibrations, and then relays the vibrations through the skull bone to the inner ear.
  • Assistive listening devices include telephone and cell phone amplifying devices, smartphone or tablet “apps,” and closed-circuit systems (hearing loop systems) in places of worship, theaters, and auditoriums.
  • Lip reading or speech reading is another option that helps people with hearing problems follow conversational speech. People who use this method pay close attention to others when they talk by watching the speaker’s mouth and body movements. Special trainers can teach how to lip read or speech read.

How can friends and family help?

Family members can work together to make living with hearing loss easier. Here are some things that can be done:

  • Tell friends and family about the hearing loss. The more friends and family know, the more people there will be able to help with the hearing loss.
  • Ask friends and family when they talk to face the person having trouble hearing, so the person can see their faces. By watching faces move and seeing their expressions, it can help a person with hearing issues to better understand the person who is speaking.
  • Ask people to speak louder, but not shout. Tell them they do not have to talk slowly — just more clearly.
  • Turn off the TV or the radio when it isn’t being actively listened to.
  • Be aware of noise in the environment that can make hearing more difficult. When going to a restaurant, for example, don’t sit near the kitchen or near a band playing music. Background noise makes it hard to hear people talk.

Working together to hear better might be tough on everyone for a while. It will take time for the person with age-related hearing loss to get used to watching people as they talk and for people to get used to speaking louder and more clearly. Be patient and continue to work together. Hearing better is worth the effort.

Information courtesy of the U.S. Department of Health and the National Institute of Health/the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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