Approximately 1 in every 8 adults in the United States has hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. After age 75, that number jumps to 50%. Fortunately, new technologies allow many of these people to hear better. Understanding the science of hearing loss can help you make decisions about the treatments that may be best for you.
The Anatomy of Hearing: How the Auditory System Works
Hearing occurs through vibration. When sound waves pass through the air, your outer ear funnels them into the ear canal. Once there, the sound waves cause the ear drum and tiny little bones inside the ear to vibrate. After the ear bones is a snail-shaped structure called the cochlea, which is filled with tiny, sensitive hairs. As these hairs vibrate, they cause brain cells to activate and translate the vibrations into the sounds we hear.
The Science of Hearing Loss
There are many potential causes of hearing loss. Some people have been deaf or hard of hearing since a young age, suggesting that there is something wrong with the components of the middle or inner ear. They may have abnormalities in the cochlea or the shape of the tiny bones in the ear, for example.
For older individuals, the most common form of hearing loss is called presbycusis. This occurs when the tiny hair cells in the cochlea change during the aging process. They may become more brittle or less responsive over time. This is most likely to affect the hairs that process high frequency sound information, which is why older adults have more difficulty hearing sounds in a higher register.
As high frequency sounds are important to deciphering information about speech, this explains why many older people have difficulty holding a conversation. They may complain that someone is mumbling or that they can’t hear well when there is background noise. This is related to the age-related changes in hair cells.
Prevention and Treatment of Hearing Loss
Some of the contributors to hearing loss are genetic, meaning that you are more likely to have hearing problems if your parents also have hearing problems. However, your lifestyle choices can also impact hearing. For example, smokers are more likely to undergo hearing loss than non-smokers.
Perhaps the biggest risk factor for age-related hearing loss is loud noise. Whenever you hear very loud noises, your cochlear hair cells are at risk of being damaged. Thus, it is best to avoid rock concerts, using headphones at a loud volume, and noise from machinery. People who work with heavy equipment and in loud environments are at especially high risk. Wearing ear protection and avoiding situations in which you are exposed to very loud noises is important.
Although there is no cure for hearing loss, there are treatments that can help. Hearing aid and hearing enhancement technology has advanced significantly in the past decade, allowing you to find a device that restores your ability to hear.