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Can't Hear? Genetics, Age, Noise and Overall Health are to Blame

It seems like only yesterday that you could hear every whisper clear as a bell. But now, instead of enjoying the sound of music, you are suffering in the sound of silence.

What happened?

There is a likely explanation for your hearing loss and, in some cases; it may even be a combination of several causes. Just read on.

You are not alone

First of all, you need to hear this – if you can: hearing loss is not only prevalent, but it is actually more widespread than previously thought.

Prior estimations by hearing health professionals in the United States – often based on self-reported hearing loss and thus not totally reliable - put the ballpark figure between 23 and 31 million. A recent study by the researchers at the John Hopkins University, however, shows that as many as 55 million Americans may have hearing loss in one or both ears.

And while the study re-confirmed that hearing loss is prevalent in older people, it also discovered that it is more common in younger ones than previously believed.

Blame your genes

Extensive research suggests that at least some secrets to hearing loss may lie in your genes. Human beings have 25,000 genes, and scientists say that 100 of them are currently known to play a role in hearing loss.

For example, European researchers identified a gene responsible for the single most common cause of hearing loss among white adults – otosclerosis - an abnormal growth of bone in the inner ear. Another gene mutation, they say, is responsible for hereditary deafness.

There is also evidence to suggest that middle-aged and older people with a genetic predisposition to hearing loss should be particularly careful about environmental risk factors such as prolonged and chronic exposure to harmful noise, as well as medications whose side-effects could be detrimental to hearing.

Some antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, blood pressure and chemotherapy drugs, are among the ones that can harm the hearing. In some cases, the effects of these treatments and drugs may not show up immediately but will creep up gradually over time. So the best advice is to discuss this with your doctor.

Age and noise – a dangerous combination

cant hear protection

Hearing protection now will have you smiling (and hearing) later

Mostly, we associate hearing loss with the aging process, and it’s true that as we grow older, our ears become less responsive to sound waves. This condition is called presbycusis. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about one in three U.S. adults between the ages of 65 and 75 have diminished hearing. The NIDCD further estimates that about half of people 75 and older have some degree of hearing loss as well.

Scientists think hearing loss may have both genetic and environmental causes, and there is no doubt that the environmental noise is harmful to hearing. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels on a regular basis (including workplace noise), an increase of 10 million from just a few years ago. On average, our parents and grandparents developed noise-related hearing loss between the ages of 40 and 50. But today, ASHA says, increased noise levels cause many young people to experience diminished hearing as early as in their teens and 20s.

Extra pounds + smoking = hearing loss

This will probably not come as a surprise to you: smoking and obesity also have negative effect on your hearing – and, of course, on health in general.

cant hear stop smoke

Stop smoking to save your hearing

A Belgian study released earlier this year correlates smoking and obesity with poor hearing, since both (or either) conditions could threaten blood flow to the ear.

In the most convincing evidence to date, researchers demonstrated that hearing loss is proportional to a person’s body mass index and the number of cigarettes he or she smokes every day. The hearing worsens, the study said, once a person smokes regularly for more than a year.

But that’s not all, folks

Another possible culprit behind hearing loss is diabetes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed data from hearing tests administered to 5,140 participants between 1999 and 2004 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The researchers found that hearing loss is about twice as common in adults with diabetes compared to those who do not have the disease, adding that more than 40 percent of the patients who participated in the study had some hearing damage.

"Hearing loss may be an under-recognized complication of diabetes,” the study concluded. “As diabetes becomes more common, the disease may become a more significant contributor to hearing loss."

By now you may be wondering whether there is any silver lining to this story. In other words, is there a way of preventing the underlying causes of hearing loss or are we doomed to suffer from this impairment?

The answer to this question depends entirely in you.

Be informed and pro-active

You may not be able to do anything about your genetic make-up, or about growing older, but when it comes to lifestyle issues, you are in control. These tips might seem overly simplistic, but they will certainly put you on the right track:

  • Avoid prolonged exposure to loud noise, which is defined as sounds louder than 85 decibels. If working in a noisy environment, wear earplugs or other protective gear.
  • Stop smoking. It’s not good for your hearing, and it’s harmful to all the other organs in your body.
  • If you are overweight, try to shed those extra pounds with diet and exercise.
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, or suspect you might have this disease, get tested and treated immediately.

And, there is one more thing you should put on your good hearing to-do list:

Get tested!

Just as you get regular health checks, you should have your hearing tested as well. How often? Every other year just to make sure all’s well, or annually if you notice that your hearing has changed. An audiologist or licensed hearing instrument specialist will assess your hearing and suggest various hearing aid options if you are a candidate.

The good news is that a hearing aid will work wonders not only for your sense of hearing, but also – as extensive scientific research shows - for your overall quality of life.

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