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Presbycusis: Hearing Loss That's Age Related

Hearing loss seems to just be a part of the aging process, and maybe it is. Hearing professionals even have a name for age related hearing loss: presbycusis, which sounds kinda scary on it's own. Presbycusis. Now that can't be good.

Scientific studies (lots of them) show why we experience age related hearing loss.  33% of those between the ages of 65 and 75 report some degree of hearing loss. Whoa! That's a whole lot of us when you consider that the largest population bubble – the Baby Boomers – are moving in to that age range.

And when you hit the big 7-5 (you turn 75) the likelihood of experiencing hearing loss climbs to 50%. One half of those who actually remember the original Woodstock ('69) either do or soon will experience hearing loss.

Great. Something else to add to new aches and pains, wrinkles, saggy necklines and all of that other good stuff that used to seem so far in the future. Well, hello, oldies but goodies. Your time has come.

Why Some Experience Age Related Hearing Loss

age related hearing loss
There is a relationship between age and hearing loss.

It's such a natural process it's probably not a question you've asked yourself a whole lot. Aging starts at the moment of birth and continues throughout periods of growth and decline in health. The reason why we age is up to debate. Which theory do you thing hits the nail on the head:

The human body is a marvelously complex machine made up off billions of individual cells of all different types: blood cells, brain cells, muscle cells, leucocytes, and a list of other cell types as long as your arm – which, by the way, is made up off bone cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, blood cells and other tissue cells that combine to create an arm – the one as long as the reasons we age.

The fact is, scientists don't know why people age. The aging process, called senescence by researchers who study the process of growing old – have put forth a number of theories.

The first is the "wear-and-tear" theory. How many times have you stubbed your toe? Banged your thumb with a ball peen hammer or cut your finger dicing and slicing that night's supper. The human body gets banged up every day because it's working hard every day.

Your eyes, for example, are constantly adjusting to the amount of light available and how far away the object you're observing is from the viewer. This goes on all day every day and over time, like any machine, these eye parts simply wear out from use.

The fact is, your body is under constant bombardment. The eyes are working, blinking, and removing dust and debris. The mouth and tongue taste and produce enzymes that begin the breakdown of food. Your sense of touch, created by thousands of nerve cells, is working all the time, though you may not think about the pressure being placed on your lower back by a mis-aligned office chair. Your body knows it.

Your nose – your olfactory nerves – can detect literally hundreds of thousands of odors from the delicate scent of a baby to the skunk that sprayed your house just to say "Hello."

And of course, your hearing system is running non-stop from morning through the night. In fact, you hear 24/7, whether it's a barking dog down the street that wakes you in the middle of the night or the soft cry of the baby who could use a little attention from mom or dad. You hear it, even if you're sound asleep.

So, over time, these sensory inputs that deliver stimuli from the outside world work and work hard and, as some scientists believe, the body simply wears out like any machine does eventually.

An up-and-coming theory is associated with the body's production of acidic little molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are produced naturally by the body and, according to new data, there's a correlation between the production of these free radicals and stressors on the body.

Free radicals actually damage the body and, according to some scientists, these nasty little bits are toxic and directly related to the aging process. For example, when you sit in the front row of a rock concert – you know, right in front of that wall of over-amped speakers – you walk out of the concert venue with a ringing in your ears. Called tinnitus, ringing in the ears often disappears after a day or two if the ears are given a break and you stay away from loud noises for a couple of days. Over time, hearing returns to normal – sort of.

You see, when your ear mechanism is being bombarded by the kick drum and bass guitar, it's placed under stress which, in turn, causes the production of free radicals that slowly but surely lessen your ability to hear. Hearing loss is a problem that accumulates the longer you are exposed to loud noise throughout your lifetime. So, if you play lead in a rock band, your ears are exposed to dangerous noise levels during every performance.

Just ask Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News and Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash. After a generation of wind-milling their way to rock-and-roll immortality, both Lewis and Stills experience hearing loss. Both rock stars have become advocates of the use of hearing protection among their fellow rockers as well as advocates for the use of hearing aids. (Both musicians are proud owners of the Oticon Dual hearing aids.)

Same deal on a loud factory floor or riding a mower eight hours a day. This constant noise creates free radicals that, over time, damage the hearing mechanism and, yep, you don't hear as well as you did back in the day – which may only be a few years ago. Today, in this MP3-plugged in world, hearing professionals are seeing younger and younger people with hearing loss.

Too much noise + too much time = hearing loss (of the permanent variety, so turn it down).

The latest hypothesis on why we age is based on genetic mutation. In an article published in the well-respected "Scientific American," puts to rest the wear and tear theory and the free radical theory and points its scientific finger at cellular mutations. "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," the SA article points out.

Seems logical. Every day the body creates millions of new cells to replace old, worn out cells. And the more of these cells created over a longer period of time, the more likely that the body is going to throw a few mutants into the mix and – boom, you age. Logic would suggest that mutation at the cellular level may, indeed, by a part of the aging process since the body produces more and more cells each day.

So, three theories on aging, but all lead to the same result. People age. Body systems age and, over time, these systems work less efficiently. Your hip aches. Your prostate grows to the size of a balloon. The heart, pumping thousands of times a day, finally gives out. The immune system weakens and the body becomes more susceptible to disease.

Hearing Loss And Your Brain

Hearing is a complex process, though it happens naturally and without too much thought.

The hearing mechanism is contained in your ears. The outer ear, called the pina, captures sound waves traveling through the air. This mechanical energy is directed down the ear canal where it causes the ear drum (tympanic membrane) to vibrate like a drum head.

These vibrations are transmitted to the anvil, the hammer and the stirrup – the three smallest bones in the body and named for their shape – which, in turn, cause the cochlea to vibrate in perfect sync. The cochlea is located deep in the ear. This snail-shaped organ is filled with a thick fluid called cochlear fluid that vibrates and creates minuscule waves within the interior of the brain.

And guess what. Even after all this transmission of sound waves, you still haven't heard yet. Nope. The inner walls of the cochlea are lined with millions of tiny hairs waving in the cochlear fluid. These hair-like projections convert mechanical (sound) energy into electrical impulses that are delivered to the hearing centers of the brain. Here, sounds are sorted out, identified and even stored for future use – all done automatically. So, you only hear once sound energy has been converted to electrical energy delivered to the brain that then sorts out such things as: what made the noise, where it came from, is it a sound of danger and so on.

The brain translates electrical impulses delivered by the cochlea and actually hears what's going on around you in your space. Hearing happens very quickly, though it's a long and complicated process.

Brain Waves

noise induced hearing loss in the workplace
Workplace hearing loss protection is key in preventing hearing loss later in life

Whether aging is caused by genetic mutations, wear and tear or the presence of free radicals, there's no doubt about the correlation between aging and the ability to hear. True fact: the older we get, the less we hear. Fortunately, technology has provided adaptive tools that compensate for natural hearing.

They're called hearing aids. Maybe you've heard of them? Heck, maybe you wear a pair. (Good for you.)

Got a bad hip? You get a hip replacement thanks to the modern marvels of medicine. Lose a tooth and have a new one implanted. Got a little balance problem? Grab the walker. As we age, we adapt through the use of tools – some simple like a cane, some complex like a hearing aid. However, whether simple or complex, these tools help people enjoy life – embrace life – longer, leading to a higher quality of life for years and years.

However, one aging part of the body that we haven't discussed is the brain. Hey, are you forgetting more than you used to? Can't remember the name of your 2nd grade teacher? Yeah, the brain ages, too, just like the rest of your body's organs, and frankly, the brain doesn't work faster as we age. Umm, it tends to work a little slower.

Studies reveal that as people age, they lose some cognitive skills – thinking skills, logic skills, and such. These changes make our hearing even that much more important. Studies have shown by keeping the brain stimulated with sound, the brain stays stimulated and alert.

For both young and old, hearing aids are small, discrete, super-charged for power, comfortable on or in the ear and they deliver a long menu of automated features, like volume adjustments as you move from one listening environment to another. Simple.

Plug yourself in each morning and unplug yourself at bedtime. You hear clear, natural sound that keeps you engaged with co-workers (you can stay on the job longer), family (your personal relationships remain solid) friends, neighbors and townsfolk (None of whom have to know you even wear a hearing aid – unless you want to show some flash and make a fashion statement. Today, you can purchase kandy-apple tangerine hearing aids and let your freak flag fly proudly.

You can take steps, whether you're 10 or 100 years old. Protect your ears. If you know you're exposed to loud noise on the job, wear hearing protection. If you plug into your iPod 12 hours a day, give your poor ears a rest. Reduce the volume and if you refuse to turn it to the left, then limit the amount of time you listen.

Your take-away? Well, there are several:

  • Hearing loss is cumulative and can occur at any age – even in your teens.
  • Turn down the volume and eliminate noise whenever you can. Run the dishwasher when you run errands. Turn off the TV for a few hours. You'll survive and your ears will get a break.
  • Seek out silence and enjoy the absence of the noise that surrounds us throughout the working day.
  • When you notice hearing loss, see a hearing aid professional – an audiologist or hearing aid practitioner. Get tested and get fitted with hearing aids that will improve the quality of your life and the lives of those with whom you share life. No more SHOUTING to be heard.
  • Keep your brain active. Yes, you can exercise the brain and keep those synapses firing on all cylinders. There are puzzles and games designed to work the different parts of the brain. Just check on line and don't consider doing a crossword puzzle a waste of time. It's a brain workout that'll keep you sharper longer.
  • Seek hearing help when you need help. Don't go it alone when it comes to hearing loss. There are lots of options and lots of experts who can help with age-related hearing loss. All you have to do is pick up the phone and give one of these hearing pros a call.

We may not know, for certain, why we age but we sure as heck know what to do about at. Use adaptive technology – from canes and artificial hips to reading glasses and hearing aids.

When you get older, you don't want to miss a beat, and today, through the use of modern hearing aid technology, the beat goes on.

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