Among the leading chronic health conditions in the United States, hearing loss impacts more than 30 million Americans. It’s a problem that doesn’t just interrupt the way we connect with our loved ones. Hearing loss takes a toll on a whole host of individual health issues, including depression, mobility and even cognitive decline.
What is hearing loss?
There are two types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. When an obstacle blocks the ear canal preventing sound from reaching the ear drum, it is designated as conductive hearing loss. The types of obstructions range from bony growths or tumors to excessive ear wax buildup. In most cases, this type of hearing loss is reversible.
The most common type of hearing loss that affects older adults is usually sensorineural, where the cells and tissues of the ear have been damaged. Age-related hearing loss occurs when the sensitive inner ear cells begin to decline due to the aging process. It’s the most common diagnosis for hearing loss and its presence is widespread. About one-third of people over the age of 65 suffer from age-related hearing loss. In most cases, hearing loss is permanent and often progressive.
How does hearing loss work?
The cells of the inner ear, stereocilia, play an integral role in our sense of hearing. They collect the noise from the outside world and turn it into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. Our brain processes this sound information and meaning is made.
But these inner ear cells, important as they are, are non-regenerative. That means that when they begin to decline, they neither repair themselves nor produce new ones. When we lose these cells, we are able to collect less sound and less sound information is sent to the brain. We hear less.
Aging isn’t the only cause of sensorineural hearing loss. The cells of our inner ear can also become damaged due to exposure to excessive noise (noise-induced hearing loss), physical trauma to the ear or head, illness, and other myriad factors.
The case for confronting hearing loss
The initial symptoms of hearing loss can be subtle and its hard to self-diagnose. In many instances, our friends and family notice hearing loss before we do, mainly because our behavior changes.
Hearing loss can cause depression and a sense of isolation. Humans are inherently pack animals and when we cut off verbal communication, we lose our sense of connection.
This can be particularly problematic for older folks, who may also be struggling to maintain a sense of independence in the world. Introducing a condition that makes communication frustrating adds layers of dependence onto family and caregivers. Studies also show that people with hearing loss tend to be less mobile than folks without the condition. As conversation becomes impossible, people with hearing loss often withdraw from life and lose a sense of vibrancy.
We also know that hearing loss increases the risk of cognitive decline down the road. People who have hearing loss, from moderate to severe cases, are as much as five times more likely to encounter dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Preventing hearing loss
We can’t press pause on the aging process, but we can protect the hearing health that we already have. Use safe listening practices in your own life and instill their importance to your children and grandchildren.
Now that we are constantly plugged into headphones and streaming devices, this is of extreme importance. Try to keep your volumes at 50 percent and never exceed two-thirds of maximum volume.
Prioritize hearing health
While many of us would acknowledge that healthy hearing plays a large role in our quality of life, few of us prioritize our hearing the way we do in other realms of health. If you are over 50 years of age, schedule a hearing exam every three years.
Confronting hearing loss can be scary and feel overwhelming, but its a condition that is highly treatable and doing so will abate its impact. Most people who choose intervention are happy with their investment and would recommend it to a friend. Schedule a hearing exam today and find out how you can truly enjoy life to the fullest.