Did you know May is Better Hearing and Speech Month? According to the National Institute on Aging, one in three adults aged 65-74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those aged 74+ have difficulty hearing. To celebrate this month-long observance and to help educate older adults on hearing health, we consulted with Kelli Bryne, owner and founder of Hearing at Home, who explains what hearing loss is and the available treatment options that can improve quality of life for those who experience problems hearing.
What is hearing loss?
Hearing loss is a partial or complete inability to hear sounds in one or both ears. Hearing loss makes it more difficult for you to hear speech and/or sounds in your environment. It can be caused by many factors, but noise exposure and the aging process are the most common causes. Hearing loss affects approximately 50 million Americans and is a gradual process. You may not even notice it at first but by the age 80, more than half of us will suffer significant hearing loss.
How Hearing Works?
Hearing is a complex process and understanding how we hear is essential is accurately diagnosing a hearing issue.
Sound waves in the environment enter the outer ear and travel down the ear canal. The sound waves cause a vibration in the middle ear or eardrum. This vibrates the three tiny bones in the middle ear, called the ossicles. As the ossicles move, they cause ripples in the fluid-filled middle ear.
Small hair cells in the inner ear can pick up this this movement and they translate the movement into electrical signals, then send the signals up the auditory nerve to the brain. Finally, your brain processes these electrical signals so that you experience sound.
Any disruption in this process, will result in a reduced ability to hear.
Types of Hearing loss –
- Sensorineural Hearing Loss – This is a permanent loss that means there is damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. Common causes of SNHL are caused by exposure to very loud sounds and/or age-related changes to the inner ear hair cells. When the cells in the inner ear are damaged, they can no longer send signals to the brain. This hearing loss affects high-pitched sounds and makes it hard to decipher important speech sounds especially in the presence of noise.
- Conductive hearing loss – This hearing loss occurs when there is a break down in sound traveling from the outer ear to the inner ear. For instance, an infection can fill the eardrum with fluid preventing the sound waves from entering the inner ear. Even a buildup of earwax in the ear canal can cause a conductive hearing loss.
- Mixed Hearing Loss – This hearing loss is a combination of conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. For example, you might have sensorineural hearing loss due to the natural aging process, but you also have an ear infection or a build-up of ear wax that is blocking your ear and causing conductive hearing loss.
What should I do if I have trouble hearing?
Consider having your hearing tested!
A hearing test is a painless and non-invasive test. The process includes a visual inspection of your ear canals, pure tone and speech audiometry and then we assess your range of hearing.
A visual inspection of the ear canals is done to see if you have a buildup of wax, fluid or infection that could be hindering how sound waves travel from the outer to middle ear.
Pure Tone Audiometry is when you will hear a variety of tones at different pitches and volumes. This test measures the softest sound you can detect at each frequency.
Speech Audiometry may also be performed. Speech Audiometry is like the pure tone audiometry, but instead of listening to different tones, you will listen to different words that are spoken at different volumes. This portion of the exam helps your hearing health care professional evaluate how well you hear and understand conversational speech.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss
- Asking others to repeat themselves
- Inability to hear people clearly
- Voice’s sound muffled
- Having to turn up the volume on the TV or radio
- Difficulty following a conversation in a noisy environment
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
What treatments and devices can help me?
Treatment often depends on the type and degree of hearing loss. Most conductive hearing losses are managed by an Otolaryngologist, a doctor that specializes in diseases or disorders of the ear, nose, and throat. Sensorineural hearing loss is often permanent and managed with hearing devices or assisted listening devices.
Are there different styles of hearing aids?
There are many types of hearing aid styles ranging from a small, sleek behind-the-ear devices to custom devices designed to fit within the outer ear canal. Choosing the right devices depends on the degree of your hearing loss, your lifestyle, dexterity and cosmetic concerns. Your hearing health care professional can help you make the best decision for your needs.
After hypertension and arthritis, hearing loss is the most common chronic health condition faced by older adults. Hearing loss impacts communication and functional ability, and is strongly associated with decreased quality of life not only of the individual who has hearing loss, but also their frequent communication partners. If you are caring for a loved one with significant hearing loss who may need assistance with daily care, we can help. Contact our compassionate team today to learn how your family can benefit from life care planning.