Mac and cheese, Romeo and Juliet, peanut butter and jelly… sometimes, one thing is inexorably intertwined with another. Such is the case with time and decay. Time had its way with the dinosaurs, Ancient Egypt, and the Roman Empire – and it will have its way with all of us.
One of the most universal ways that time affects our bodies is by slowly taking our hearing. As we age, we lose our hearing – that’s just a fact of life. This process is known as “presbycusis” – a combination of the Greek for old, “presbys”, and hearing, “akousis.”
You should feel no shame if you notice that your hearing ability is starting to dwindle. If you’ve noticed your hearing starting to fade as you age, you should address it as soon as possible. You can do this by arranging a consultation with your nearest hearing healthcare professional – and if you use our form, it’s free!
Am I losing my hearing?
The first thing to consider is whether or not you’re actually undergoing age-related hearing loss. Since this happens gradually over an extended period of time – basically your entire lifetime – you might not notice it until you’re quite far into it.
Here are some signs you might be overlooking that could mean you’re experiencing hearing loss:
- Having to turn up the TV
- Constantly asking people to repeat themselves
- Struggling to hear through the telephone
- Struggling to hear in noisy environments (like parks or restaurants)
- Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
You might have even noticed that your hearing is degrading, but thought nothing of it, since “it’s normal to lose your hearing as you age.” However, age-related hearing loss being common does not mean that it’s unavoidable.
Why do we lose our hearing as we age?
We know that time slowly damages your hearing, but why? What are the specifics behind it? Well, to know what goes wrong with the ear, we have to know what goes right with it, and how it works.
When sound enters the ear, it travels down the ear canal and vibrates three small bones, which stimulate thousands of tiny hair cells within an organ known as the cochlea. The cochlea then sends electrical signals to the brain.
So, when we start to lose our hearing as we age, which of these components start to fail us? That responsibility lies mostly with the tiny hair cells.
Since there are thousands upon thousands of these cells, a few of them dying wouldn’t be a massive setback. But they can be wiped out en masse by things like loud noise, certain drugs, or illnesses that induce high fevers. When these cells die, you experience what is known as sensorineural hearing loss.
The biggest bane of the hearing healthcare world is the fact that these sensitive cells cannot regenerate. Everything you know about hearing healthcare would be flipped on its head if we had a solution to this single problem – we wouldn’t need hearing aids, we wouldn’t need certain surgeries, and everything would be a lot simpler.
Sadly, though, we don’t yet have a cure for deceased hair cells – so for now, we’re stuck looking at treatment options.
Age related hearing loss treatment
So what’s the course of action when it comes to treating hearing loss? Well, like we said, the hair cells responsible for your hearing cannot be revived. Sensorineural hearing loss is irreversible, and the only way to address it is with fairly significant steps.
There are two treatment options when it comes to sensorineural hearing loss – hearing aids and cochlear implants. Hearing aids are generally prescribed to individuals with mild to moderately severe hearing loss, whereas cochlear implants are usually prescribed to those experiencing severe to profound hearing loss. Assistive listening devices (ALDs) may also be prescribed in some cases.
Depending on how severe your hearing loss is, you may also want to look into learning alternative communication methods, like sign language or lip-reading.
When it comes down to it, the best cure for hearing loss is foresight. Taking good care of your hearing before hearing loss occurs is crucial in avoiding presbycusis. Let’s look at the best ways to protect your ears as time marches on.
How to prevent hearing loss in old age
But if these hair cells are so sensitive, surely maintaining them is going to feel like a full-time job, right? Well, no. While you proactively take care of your teeth and skin, ear care is more passive – it's what you don't do that makes all the difference.
Firstly, and most obviously, keep an eye on your sound intake. Any noise under 80 dB (around the loudness of a vacuum cleaner) is safe to listen to for as long as you want, but once you break 85 dB (the sound of loud applause), you need to be aware of how long you’re being exposed to loud sound.
The decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning a person can tolerate 85 dB of sound for up to 8 hours, but a 90 dB sound for only 2 hours. Bump the sound up to 110 dB, and they won’t be able to stand it for more than 2 minutes.
You should also avoid ototoxic chemicals – chemicals that are toxic to your inner ear. These can be found in certain antibiotics, chemotherapy agents, and even tobacco and alcohol. To list every ototoxic chemical would triple the length of this article, but it’s still important to be informed of the concept. When being prescribed medication, ask your doctor if it happens to be ototoxic, and if so, if there is a possibility of alternative medication or a reduced dosage.
Do keep in mind, though, that if the only treatment option for a serious health issue involves an ototoxic medication, we still recommend that you follow your doctor’s instructions. The importance of some health issues will unquestionably outweigh that of your hearing.
If I take these actions now, will it prevent future damage?
If you believe you already have presbycusis, making these lifestyle changes is a great response – but if the damage is already done, it still needs to be addressed correctly. Failure to do so could lead to greater hearing loss, even if you do start paying more attention to your hearing health.
Having hearing loss and not addressing it with hearing aids is a recipe for disaster. On average, people wait seven years to address any hearing loss that they’re noticing. This is almost a tenth of the average American lifespan (~80 years) – a massive amount of time for more hearing damage to accumulate.
If you think about all the time in those seven years spent turning the TV up higher, or straining to hear someone in a restaurant, you can imagine how it would only damage your hearing further. That’s why time is of the essence when it comes to professionally addressing hearing loss.
Looking to the future
If you suspect that your hearing is getting worse, then it’s important to have your hearing evaluated. Untreated hearing loss can negatively affect your quality of life, and should not be written off as “normal for your age.” Any degree of hearing loss, no matter how old you are, is significant and should be addressed.
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