Did you know that approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 has difficulty hearing?
There are two general categories of hearing loss:
- Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent.
- Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound waves cannot reach the inner ear. The cause may be earwax buildup, fluid, or a punctured eardrum. Medical treatment or surgery can usually restore conductive hearing loss.
Sudden Hearing Loss:
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or sudden deafness, is a rapid loss of hearing. It can happen to a person all at once or over a period of up to 3 days. It should be considered a medical emergency. If you or someone you know experiences sudden sensorineural hearing loss, visit a doctor immediately.
Age-Related Hearing Loss (Presbycusis):
Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, comes on gradually as a person gets older. It seems to run in families and may occur because of changes in the inner ear and auditory nerve. Presbycusis may make it hard for a person to tolerate loud sounds or to hear what others are saying. Age-related hearing loss usually occurs in both ears, affecting them equally. The loss is gradual, so someone with presbycusis may not realize that he or she has lost some of his or her ability to hear.
Other Common Causes of Hearing Loss:
- Loud noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Noise from lawn mowers, snow blowers, or loud music can damage the inner ear, resulting in permanent hearing loss. Loud noise also contributes to tinnitus. You can prevent most noise-related hearing loss. Protect yourself by turning down the sound on your stereo, television, or headphones; moving away from loud noise; or using earplugs or other ear protection.
- Earwax or fluid buildup can block sounds that are carried from the eardrum to the inner ear. If wax blockage is a problem, talk with your doctor. He or she may suggest mild treatments to soften earwax. Earwax can also be removed by your ENT, PCP or audiologist.
- A punctured ear drum can also cause hearing loss. The eardrum can be damaged by infection, pressure, or putting objects in the ear, including cotton-tipped swabs. See your doctor if you have pain or fluid draining from the ear. Your ENT may be able to repair a punctured eardrum.
- Diabetes or high blood pressure can contribute to hearing loss.
- Viruses and bacteria (including the ear infection otitis media) can cause conduction or sensorineural hearing loss by affecting the eardrum, middle ear or inner ear.
- Cardiovascular disease, stroke, brain injury or a tumor may also affect your hearing.
- Hearing loss can also result from taking certain medications. “Ototoxic” medications damage the inner ear, sometimes permanently. Some ototoxic drugs include medicines used to treat infections (certain antibiotics), cancer, and heart disease. Even aspirin at some dosages can cause problems. Check with your doctor if you notice a problem while taking a medication.
- Radiation therapy can cause hearing loss when the middle or inner ear is exposed to a high dose of radiation. Careful planning by a radiation oncologist and dosimetrist can often protect the patient’s hearing by limiting doses to this area.
- Family genetics can cause hearing loss, as well. But not all inherited forms of hearing loss take place at birth. Some forms can show up later in life. For example, in otosclerosis, which is thought to be a hereditary disease, an abnormal growth of bone prevents structures within the ear from working properly.
- Sleep apnea can cause both high and low frequency hearing loss. Sleep apnea is when a person has 15 or more episodes of shallow breathing or pauses breathing completely while asleep (over the course of a 1 hour period). Due to this suppression of oxygen, scientist have noted various issues with blood flow. A lack of blood flow can cause damage to the ear, such that hearing loss may occur.
- Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disease that typically affects one ear. It can cause pressure or pain in the ear, dizziness or vertigo, hearing loss, and a ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Ringing in the Ears (Tinnitus):
Tinnitus is also common in older people. It is typically described as ringing in the ears, but it also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing. It can come and go. It might be heard in one or both ears, and it may be loud or soft. Tinnitus is sometimes the first sign of hearing loss in older adults. Tinnitus can accompany any type of hearing loss and can be a sign of other health problems, such as high blood pressure, allergies, or as a side effect of medications. Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also be the result of a number of health conditions.