Hearing loss and aging: Your questions answered
It's normal to experience loss of hearing due to aging. While it can be hard to accept, knowing why hearing loss occurs and what to do about it is an important first step to better hearing—and a better quality of life.
How does age affect hearing?
Age-related hearing loss is known medically as presbycusis. As we age, the tiny hair cells in our inner ears—which are responsible for producing sound—gradually stop working as well for some of us. These tiny hair cells are responsible for triggering pulses in the auditory nerve, which delivers sound signals to the brain.
Other things that can make our hearing deteriorate as we get older include:
- exposure to loud noises
- some medications
- auditory and medical conditions that affect blood flow in the ear
Age also affects our outer ears in a couple of different ways. First, they continue to grow (or at least stretch) as we age--yes, you read that right. That growth will not affect your hearing ability unless you already wear hearing aids. Over time, the fit of your hearing aids may become looser and the whistling known as feedback may occur. If the feedback becomes bothersome, see your hearing healthcare professional for adjustments. Some of us may also notice more earwax building up in our ear canals as we age. This is a common cause of hearing loss that can be resolved by a quick cleaning of your ear canals by your primary care physician or hearing care professional.
What age does hearing loss begin?
Our ears are affected by the aging process in much the same way as other organs. Everyone ages differently but generally, by the time you reach your 60s, your ability to hear may not be as sharp as it once was. It happens so gradually, most of us don't notice the loss until it starts to cause trouble in our ability to easily understand conversation with family and friends.
What is the typical pattern of hearing loss caused by age?
Hearing loss caused by age often has a specific pattern. Higher frequency sounds, or pitches, such as words that end in "s" (like "this"), are often harder to hear than lower pitch sounds, such as words that end in "at" (like "that"). Also, you may have problems understanding women's and children's voices but have an easier time with men's voices, for the same reason.
If you have a hearing exam, your audiogram results will likely show a slope downward from left to right.
Will I know if I'm having trouble hearing?
Hearing problems can occur very gradually—you might not even realize you're missing out on important sounds and conversations. But a strong signal to get help is when your spouse, family members or coworkers suggest you get hearing aids.
Is ringing in ears common?
Ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, is a common symptom or side effect of age-related hearing loss. If you are experiencing ringing, buzzing or whooshing sounds in your ears, it is time to have your hearing tested.
Does hearing loss mean my brain isn't working as well?
The brain’s role in hearing is to process information that the ear detects. A younger brain zips through this task quickly, but an older brain may be slower to process language and sounds. Difficulty recognizing words in loud settings is a common concern for older people, and research suggests this may be due to age-related structural changes in the brain.
Besides cognitive challenges, hearing loss has far-reaching emotional and physical impacts on seniors, too.
What can I do about hearing changes with age?
Besides getting fitted with hearing aids, you can take measures to slow down the onset of some illnesses that affect hearing, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Lifestyle choices such as healthy nutrition rich in vitamins and antioxidants, regular exercise, and a smoke-free environment also go a long way. Online brain training games and hobbies like crossword puzzles or card games with friends can help keep your brain engaged.
If left untreated, hearing loss is linked to a host of problems for seniors, such as depression, and a greater risk of falls.
Is it true hearing aids will improve my health?
Yes! In fact there are at least five ways hearing aids can help you live longer. To reap these benefits, make an appointment with a hearing specialist. They can assess your hearing loss, and provide solutions that work with your lifestyle.
Hearing aids provide benefits for any older adult with hearing loss, including those in assisted living and nursing homes. If you are a caretaker of an older adult, you'll also want to know these tips for hearing aid care in nursing homes.
Will hearing aids make me look old?
Some people worry that hearing aids make them look old. However, we'd argue that the label often applies to people who crank up the TV to unbearable levels, or who cup their ears and ask "What???" all the time.
Instead, here are two ways to fight that stigma: Lower the volume and get fitted with hearing aids.