What is age-related hearing loss?

Age-related hearing impairment, also known as presbycusis, is a decrease in hearing ability that happens as you get older. It is the most common type of sensorineural hearing loss. The term, sensorineural loss of hearing means that you have damage to the hair cells in your inner ear or to your nerve pathways. In the majority of the cases, hearing loss affects both of your ears.

You may find it surprising to learn that age-related hearing loss can begin at a relatively young age. Your hearing can start declining as early as in your thirties and forties and continue deteriorating over time. Although presbycusis is not life-threatening, leaving it untreated is not a good idea. As the condition worsens, it will take a toll on your quality of life.
At the early stages of presbycusis, you may find it difficult to hear high-frequency sounds. Speech falls into this category, which means that understanding spoken words will become more challenging as time goes on. Hearing others gets even harder in environments with loud noise or with a ton of background noise. The tricky aspect of presbycusis is that since the hearing loss happens slowly, so you may not even realize that you can't hear as well as before.

Over time, as your hearing loss continues to worsen, you will find that high-pitch sounds are not the only ones giving you trouble. You will notice that presbycusis now affects other frequencies as well. Discovering where a sound is coming from and recognizing its source, become more difficult. You may also experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears), dizziness, and even problems with your balance.
age-related hearing loss
Age-related hearing loss can slowly take a toll on your quality of life. Often, when people realize the extent of their hearing loss, they become extremely discouraged and more reluctant to participate in social interactions. Social isolation and depression are common consequences of hearing troubles. If you struggle with presbycusis, you may be able to relate to this emotional turmoil that goes on. It is not easy to face the reality of not being able to hear and understand when others speak to you.

Another concern is that your worsening hearing loss can quickly turn into a safety issue. Can you imagine not hearing the high-pitch sound of a smoke alarm when your house catches on fire? Or not hearing the siren of the ambulance as you drive on the highway? All these situations can put you in harm's way. If you experience age-related hearing loss, it's crucial to get a hearing test done by an audiologist or hearing care professional. Your doctor can determine the extent of damage to your auditory system and advise you on the best possible solutions for your problems. If necessary, he or she may recommend a hearing aid to help improve your hearing and give your self-esteem back.

How common is age-related hearing loss?

You are not alone with your problem of presbycusis. It is actually one of the most prevalent health conditions afflicting older adults. Millions of people worldwide are affected. In the United States, 50% of people over 65 have some degree of hearing loss. The ratio of hearing impairment amongst people over 85 is even higher, with an estimated 80 percent plagued by the problem. These statistics explain why, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, there are over 28 million people in the U.S. who could benefit from wearing hearing aids.

What causes age-related hearing loss?

Even though it may be tempting to blame your declining hearing ability on aging alone, there is more to the equation than that. Although scientists do not entirely understand the exact causes of the condition, many factors are likely to contribute to the hearing loss we encounter as we age. They aren't sure if the problem is in the inner ear, middle ear or in the outer ear.

Doctors believe that presbycusis is caused by a combination of environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors. Many experts associate the development of age-related hearing loss with changes in the inner ear. In the inner ear is where sound waves are converted to nerve impulses.
Loss of hair cells in the Cochlea
The loss of nerve hair cells in the Cochlea is often named as the primary cause of your condition. The Cochlea is the organ that senses sound. The cochlear nerve's (also called auditory nerve) job is to carry auditory sensory information from the cochlea directly to the brain. A lifetime of exposure to noise can damage these sensitive nerve hair cells.
Changes in the eardrum
Other theories suggest that instead of the inner ear, changes in the eardrum are at the root of the problem. These are all theories, not proven facts. The truth is, the medical community is unsure of the exact cause. Most likely, it is the combination of various factors that create the hearing loss as we get older.
Genes likely play a role too. A family history of presbycusis may increase your risks. Environmental and lifestyle factors have also been associated with age-related hearing loss.
Exposure to loud noise
You should never listen to music through headsets on high volume because long-term exposure to loud noise is very damaging to your auditory system. Smoking and exposure to heavy metals such as mercury or lead can also damage your ears. Certain medications can be toxic to the cells in your inner ear and cause hearing loss.
Although science doesn't fully understand the relationship between hearing loss and diet, it seems that nutritional deficiencies can also contribute to presbycusis.
If you think that your hearing has gradually gotten worse over the years, the best thing to do is to get your hearing checked. You can do that by making an appointment to see a hearing health professional, such as an audiologist.

Based on your hearing test results, your audiologist will be able to determine the extent of the damage in each ear. Your hearing professional can work with you to recommend the best treatment options for you. Hearing aids have been used with great success as a solution for age-associated hearing loss. You will be able to ask questions about the various options and discuss the benefits of getting a hearing device.