The Main Reasons for Hearing Loss With Age

There are a number of reasons why hearing tends to deteriorate with age. Some of these include:
  • A loss of elasticity - with age, the body produces less elastin. This inevitably means that soft tissues across the body become less elastic, including parts of the inner ear. The effect of this is that the ear works less effectively, causing hearing loss.
  • Damage to the cilia - the inner ear is covered in very tiny, hair-like structures called cilia. Their movement is a key part of the process by which sound waves travel through the ear. Loud noises can damage the cilia, which don't recover. Over time, damage to a significant number of cilia contributes to hearing loss.
  • Chronic health conditions - conditions such as diabetes, circulatory problems, and/or heart disease have a systemic effect on the body. The result is widespread deterioration, including hearing loss.
  • Medication side effects - some types of medication can cause hearing loss.

Which Sound Frequencies are Lost First?

Hearing loss doesn't just mean the inability to hear low-volume sounds, it can also affect the pitch that a person hears, as well as affect the ability to pick a sound out from others. 

Volume Loss

In terms of volume loss, a normal ear can pick up sounds ranging from a single decibel upwards. As hearing loss declines, the volume at which the ear picks up sound increases.

With slight hearing loss, for example, an individual will be unable to distinguish sounds below twenty decibels.
Moderate hearing loss results in an individual being unable to hear noises quieter than somewhere between 41 to 55 decibels.
It is once individuals are unable to distinguish sounds between 55 and 70 or so decibels that their quality of life can begin to suffer significantly. Human speech averages 65 decibels. Being unable to hear (and therefore take part in) a conversation creates isolation and loneliness, which have a devastating impact on health and quality of life.
At the more extreme end of the hearing loss spectrum, individuals are described as profoundly deaf is they can't hear anything below 90 decibels. With this level of hearing loss, a conversation is virtually indistinguishable.

Sound Frequency Loss

On average, a healthy young person can hear anything from about 20 up to 20,000Hz. As people age, it is the upper part of the frequency range that they lose the ability to hear first.

Whereas a person in their twenties will be able to hear up to 17,000Hz or more, by their thirties this will have declined to about 16,000Hz. By the time an individual is in their 50s, their hearing range will usually have declined to around 12,000Hz. 

None of these changes are particularly problematic and are a normal part of aging. Unfortunately, further deterioration to the ear, caused by one or more of the factors listed above, can cause the frequency range an individual can make out to drop even further.
The majority of sounds that we hear every day are somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000Hz. Bird song, for example, measures somewhere between 1,000 and 8,000Hz. Most parts of human speech have frequencies of between 2,000 and 4,000Hz. Once individuals' ability to detect frequencies diminishes to less than 7,000 or 8,000Hz, their ability to hear is significantly compromised.
It is a loss of ability to detect frequency range that is one of the key reasons why people may struggle to hear a conversation when there is background noise, even if the noise is at a low volume.

Symptoms of Early Hearing Loss

Many people with early hearing loss won't notice that they have any symptoms. For example, although the ability to hear high frequencies will already have begun to decline by the time a person is in their 30s, most people will not notice any negative impact on their lives!
Early symptoms of hearing loss include:
  • Difficulty following a conversation when there is a low level of background noise. In particular, consonants may be difficult to make out.
  • Noises sounding muffled.
  • Discovering that you need to turn the radio or television up to a higher volume than previously.
  • Frequently needing to tell people to speak more loudly, slowly, or clearly so that you can hear what they're saying.
  • Pain in the ears.
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or other unwanted auditory noises.
If you notice any of these signs, it's important to get your hearing checked promptly by an audiologist. Although in most cases hearing loss can be mitigated through the use of appropriate hearing aids, hearing loss may also be due to underlying pathologies (for example, untreated high blood pressure). In these circumstances, early detection can enable appropriate treatment. This, in turn, will reduce the risk of hearing (and potentially other aspects of health) deteriorating further.

Effective Early Interventions

The right sort of hearing aid, alongside preventative measures to minimize the risk of further deterioration is key to managing hearing loss. 

Connect Hearing offers a complete diagnostic and treatment service for hearing loss. Why not book a consultation to check your hearing, to ensure any problems are sorted out early?
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. You should not use the information as a substitute for, nor should it replace, professional medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional.