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Hearing Loss: What's Age Got To Do With It?

What we are about to tell you is not exactly breaking news (and it may not lift your spirits), but it merits to be repeated nevertheless: As we grow older, our hearing diminishes. There, we said it.

It is true that hearing loss can – and does – strike at any age. In fact, studies show that in far too many cases hearing loss impacts some people earlier than previously thought, mostly due to chronic and prolonged exposure to environmental noise. The U.S. government data shows that approximately 5.2 million children ages 6 to 19 already have permanent damage to their ears' inner hair cells caused by exposure to loud noises, impacting not only their hearing, but also causing impaired language development, ability to learn, and social interactions.

In most cases, however, presbycusis, a gradual and progressive hearing loss that starts in midlife and continues to increase as years go by, is associated with the aging process. 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 impaired hearing. The NIDCD further estimates that about half of people 75 and older have some degree of hearing loss as well.

The mysteries of aging

Okay, so we all know that we get older from the moment we are born. But one of the mankind’s as yet unanswered questions is why we age.

Since the scientists are still pondering the senescence (the process of growing older), we are not going to give you any irrefutable answers here. We can, however, list some of the theories that are being debated and put forth as possible explanations for aging.

If there is one certainty about this subject that virtually all scientists and researchers agree on, it is that aging is a largely mysterious process. The human body can be considered as a complex machine that wears out as genetic, environmental (and possibly other, as yet unknown) factors wreak havoc with cell, tissue, and organ functions. That’s why the aging process brings on degenerative changes in the skin, bones, heart, blood vessels, lungs, nerves, as well as organs most associated with hearing – brain and our inner ears.

This “wear and tear” hypothesis is one of the predominant ones currently advanced by mainstream scientists. Another one is the free radical theory, which blames a lifetime accumulation of free radicals – organic molecules that damage healthy tissue - for aging.

And most biologists agree that genetic mutations are largely responsible for this process. In fact, an article in the October 2008 issue of Scientific American refutes other theories by stating: “Instead of being the result of an accumulation of genetic and cellular damage, new evidence suggests that aging may occur when genetic programs for development go awry.”

At the end of the day, the scientific jury is out on why we age, just as it has not handed in the final verdict on why sea turtles can live to the ripe old age of 150, but an average human life span in the United States is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 78 years.

That is a topic for another article.

Good hearing – all in your head?

Let’s get back to hearing. Before we talk about the impact of aging on our ears, we must not forget the importance of the brain in the hearing process.

The brain’s role, to simplify a rather complex function, is to process information that the ear detects. A strong and alert brain zips through this task quickly and efficiently, but a brain that is weakened by age may impact our ability to listen, hear and understand a conversation, especially when surrounded by background noise.

Recent studies supported by NIDCD found that difficulty recognizing words in loud settings is a common concern for older people, and new research suggests they may be due to age-related structural changes in the brain.

This newest research builds on the findings of previous studies that have demonstrated a correlation between a weakened brain and the age-related hearing loss.

Aging ears

Whether weakened by genes, free radicals, environmental factors or other, as yet undiscovered causes, our ears are affected by the aging process in much the same way as other organs.

We are born with a set of sensory cells that function optimally in our youth but these structures of the inner ear start to deteriorate over time, so slowly and gradually that most of us don’t notice the change in our hearing capacity until midlife or later.

As presbycusis sets in, our hearing becomes less responsive to sound waves. Couple this phenomenon with an aging, slower brain and, well… you get the picture.

Get smarter, not younger

Sure, we would all love to find that elusive fountain of eternal youth which would protect us from wrinkles, gray hair, sagging skin, slowed brain function, and diminished hearing – not to mention the host of other age-related conditions.

But since that is not going to happen anytime soon, let’s get realistic, people. There are currently no sure, FDA-approved ways to prevent the aging process (though there are plenty of kooky methods being peddled, so beware).

The good news is that there are steps you can take to slow down the onset of some illnesses and signs of aging, and they all have to do with sensible lifestyle choices such as healthy nutrition rich in vitamins and antioxidants, regular exercise, and a smoke-free environment.

To keep your brain supple, boost its power with some mental gymnastics. The PositScience Brain Fitness computer program, which is made up of six exercises targeting auditory processing and memory, uses cutting-edge research in neuroscience to increase brain plasticity - the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences.

Another site to explore for brain exercise is Lumosity, which claims to give your brain a workout in just 10 minutes a day – no pain, no sweat.

And what about our (aging) ears? Here are two youth-boosting techniques: lower the volume and get fitted with hearing aids.

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