According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 36 million adults report experiencing hearing loss, but why do some older adults have hearing problems while others maintain normal hearing throughout their lives? Hearing loss may have many different causes that lead to partial or complete deafness in one or both ears.
Some hearing deficits may be temporary and have the potential to improve or may be completely reversed, while other types of hearing loss tend to be progressive and/or permanent. Discovering the cause of the hearing deficit may play a key factor in determining best treatment options, and early detection may help to prevent further damage.
Who is at Risk for Hearing Loss?
Many risk factors contribute to hearing loss. A loss of ability to hear may occur gradually over time as with presbycusis, or the loss of hearing may occur suddenly. Examples of some factors leading to impaired hearing include:
- a family history of hearing loss
- buildup of earwax or cerumen
- allergies and other conditions that may result in fluid or inflammation in the ear
- infections such as meningitis or otitis media
- secondary ear infections resulting from conditions such as influenza
- traumatic brain injuries, fractures in the skull, or a punctured eardrum
- diseases of the middle ear, such as otosclerosis
- a tumor in or near the ear
- Ménière’s disease – in addition to hearing loss, people with this condition may have ringing in the ears, vertigo or dizziness, and may experience sensitivity to loud noises
- autoimmune diseases of the ear – these may result in sudden hearing loss
- some medications known to have the potential to cause ototoxity such as certain antibiotics, large amounts of salicylates, loop diuretics, and some types of chemotherapy
- exposure to loud noises (generally 85 decibels and higher), especially if the noise is prolonged or close to the ear – examples include a lawn mower, loud music, motorcycles, or gunshots
Some chronic health conditions may place seniors at a higher risk for hearing loss. For example, people with diabetes and pre-diabetes have an increased incidence of hearing loss when compared to those who do not have higher than normal blood sugar levels.
Common Myths About Hearing Loss
Older adults who are experiencing a loss of hearing may not realize that they have a hearing deficit or may not understand the severity of the problem. Others may realize they have a hearing problem but may be too embarrassed to mention the problem to a healthcare professional or may feel too rushed or too uncomfortable to address the issue. Many seniors have not had a hearing test in more than five years.
Many people assume that hearing loss is normal with age and that there is nothing that can be done to correct the problem or to help a person who is hard of hearing. Advances in technology have enabled better assessments of hearing to help people identify and treat reversible causes of hearing problems, such as removing excess ear wax or effectively treating allergies. Changing certain medications or dosages may also reverse hearing loss in some people. Some treatments are more effective if the problem is discovered in early stages.
Modern hearing aids are often less conspicuous and may provide superior hearing assistance while dampening background noise when compared to older styles of hearing aids. Adaptive devices, such as lights on a smoke alarm, telephone, and doorbell, may enable someone with hearing loss to function and communicate more efficiently and safely. Other devices may enable someone with hearing loss to better hear sound in a device like the television, telephone, or stethoscope without turning the volume to an uncomfortable level for others who may use the same device.
People who are living with someone who has a hearing deficit can also benefit from learning helpful communication techniques that may enable them to better communicate, such as facing the person when speaking and decreasing background noises like the television. The person who has a hearing deficit may also improve communication by using adaptive devices as appropriate, seeking clarification, and verifying what he thought he heard by repeating the message back to the person who was talking.
Causes of Hearing Loss in Older Adults
Many people may assume that loss of hearing is a normal change of aging, but loss of hearing may have a variety of causes with varying degrees of successful treatment options. Sometimes hearing deficits may be due to conditions that are reversible or manageable. Hearing may be completely or partially restored if the cause can be reversed. Seniors with permanent hearing loss have more options for treatment and/or adaptive devices. Seeking early assessment and exploring treatment options may result in stopping or slowing the progression of hearing loss and may result in a better quality of life.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s “Causes of Hearing Loss in Adults”
- National Institute of Health’s SeniorHealth “Hearing Loss”
- National Institute of Health’s “Hearing Disorders and Deafness”