No matter how healthily we live, there comes a time when our hearing and vision just isn’t what it used to be. If we’re lucky enough, this is a natural part of the aging process. Scientists call age-related hearing loss presbycusis.
Presbycusis occurs gradually over a long period of time in both ears, so it’s often difficult to notice. Hearing health professionals estimate 30 percent of individuals over the age of 65, and as many as 50 percent of those over the age of 75, have some degree of hearing loss as a result of the aging process. Symptoms include difficulty hearing in noisy places, noticing that certain sounds that seem louder than others, voices sounding muffled, and ringing in the ears. You may also have trouble distinguishing certain high-pitched sounds from others, such as “s” or “th” and notice that men’s voices are easier to distinguish than women’s.
Heredity and environmental factors play a big role in the how quickly our hearing ages. Those with a family history of hearing loss, those who have been exposed to a noisy environment and smokers are more susceptible to developing hearing loss at an earlier age than others.
Since side effects from some medications as well as some medical conditions can also cause hearing loss, it’s important to see a hearing health professional as soon as you notice your hearing is impaired. Circulatory conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes can affect your hearing, as well as some prescribed medications for cancer chemotherapy, pain and antibiotics. Once the reason for your hearing loss is diagnosed, it can be treated appropriately.
How does aging affect hearing? As we age, our eardrums thicken, making it harder for sound vibrations to cross into the inner ear. Inside the inner ear, the tiny hairs responsible for interpreting sound waves into sound signals become damaged and die. Unlike the hairs on our head, these hairs do not regenerate, meaning our hearing is permanently affected.
Aging also causes changes to our auditory nerve (responsible for hearing acuity) and our brain’s ability to process sound, which contributes to hearing loss. Aging may also affect the fluids and sensitive hairs in our inner ear that help us maintain balance.
If aging is the reason for your hearing loss, your audiologist will more than likely recommend hearing aids or cochlear implants to improve your condition. Just as eyeglasses correct your sight, these assisted hearing devices help you hear better so you can continue to communicate effectively with friends, family members and co-workers.