And it has more of an impact than most people realize. The brain, it turns out, is influenced heavily by its environment. When we lose access to one of the senses, we're not just cutting off a source of information — we're completely changing how our brain processes things. 

When acquired earlier in life, hearing loss may result in delayed development of speech and language. Age-related hearing loss, meanwhile, can contribute to cognitive decline. 

But what exactly causes hearing loss? What other symptoms accompany it? And more importantly, how is it treated? 

We'll start with the causes. 

What Causes Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss is an incredibly broad, diverse condition and varies significantly in terms of severity. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that there are so many different things that can cause someone to lose their hearing. These include: 

Old Age

Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, is extremely common. Johns Hopkins Medicine estimates that as many as one in three adults over age 65 suffers from the condition

Issues During Pregnancy

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, congenital hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions in children. Most commonly, it's the result of a genetic disorder. However, it may also be caused by a multitude of other factors, as noted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association:

  • Infections
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Injury during birth
  • Maternal drug or alcohol use
  • Maternal diabetes
  • Maternal preeclampsia (high blood pressure)
  • Anoxia (lack of oxygen)

Trauma/Physical Damage

Most commonly, trauma-related hearing loss is the result of exposure to catastrophic noise, such as an explosion. It can also be caused by concussive impacts to the face, skull, or outer ear. Finally, improper insertion of foreign objects can also cause hearing loss.

Blockage

This may be caused by excessive earwax buildup (cerumen impaction) or the presence of a foreign object in the ear. 

Noise

Noise-related hearing loss is extremely common. However, it isn't usually the result of one instance of exposure — hence why we've placed it in a separate category. It often happens gradually, as one is repeatedly exposed to unhealthy noise levels over a prolonged period of time. 

Illness and Disease

Multiple medical conditions can contribute to or cause hearing loss, including: 

  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Infections

Additionally, the medication used to treat some conditions may be ototoxic, meaning there's a chance that an adverse reaction could result in hearing impairment or damage. 

What Are the Types of Hearing Loss?

Not only can hearing loss occur in different levels in each ear, but it's also possible to suffer from hearing loss in only one ear (known as unilateral hearing loss) or both ears (bilateral hearing loss). There are also countless other factors that influence how your hearing loss presents, such as location and cause. With that said, there are three major categories of hearing loss: 

  • Conductive. With conductive hearing loss, sound cannot pass through the outer or middle ear. Usually caused by a blockage somewhere in the ear. 
  • Sensorineural. The result of damage to or interference with the inner ear or auditory nerve. 
  • Mixed. A combination of both conductive and sensorineural. 

What Are the Symptoms of Hearing Loss?

The symptoms of hearing loss are as diverse as the causes. Moreover, many people who suffer from milder forms of hearing loss may not even be aware they have it, as the onset can be so gradual that it's not noticeable until it becomes especially severe. General signs and symptoms may include:

  • Struggling to hear a conversation when there is a large amount of background noise
  • Sounds of certain pitches or frequencies becoming muffled
  • Balance issues
  • Vertigo/dizziness
  • Tinnitus

Hearing loss in children is a bit more challenging to diagnose, as it can often be confused for other problems or missed entirely. A child with hearing loss may not respond to loud noises, fail to react to certain sounds, experience delayed speech, or struggle in school. As with adults, it's best to address this as soon as possible. 

How is Hearing Loss Treated?

Treatment is usually dependent on the type of hearing loss and the degree to which one is losing their hearing. In some cases, it may require a hearing assistance device such as a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Other options include audiologic rehabilitation therapy, which helps you adjust to hearing loss in your daily life. Medication may be prescribed to treat infections and certain conditions, as well. 

As is often the case, prevention is the best treatment of all — and the earlier you catch hearing loss, the easier it is to treat. Make an appointment with your audiologist today.