In fact, hearing loss is the third-most prevalent chronic health problem in older adults, after high blood pressure and arthritis. The U.S. Preventive Task Force recommends that all people ages 50 and over get a hearing test, and that younger people do so if they notice symptoms such as tinnitus (prolonged ringing in the ears). If a test indicates that your hearing is impaired, the task force advises treating it without delay, as you would any other major medical problem. (Please see Next Avenue’s Hearing Loss Guide for more information about how to diagnose and treat age-related hearing loss.)
Typical age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is caused by progressive damage to the hair cells of your inner ear. When these hairs are damaged or die, they cannot grow back. Hearing loss can be caused by natural changes in the inner ear, but can be exacerbated by genetics, continued exposure to loud noise, or smoking.
Not all hearing loss is permanent and not all cases require a hearing aid. Some hearing loss is caused by a reaction to aspirin, ibuprofen, or ibuprofen, which can be ototoxic (damaging to the ear), particularly in men. Hearing often improves after a patient stops taking the medicines. Ear infections, injuries, and earwax can also cause reversible hearing loss.
Unfortunately, too many of us put off taking any action on our hearing. “There’s a huge paradox when it comes to treating hearing loss in young people as opposed to older adults,” Lin says. “If a 12-year-old’s audiogram shows significant hearing loss, the family will want to begin treatment right away, whereas if you attach that same audiogram to a 62-year-old, people are more apt to accept it as an inevitable part of aging. Most people wouldn’t hesitate to take medication for high blood pressure, yet those same people may balk at getting a hearing aid.”
- Avoid extreme noise. Noise exposure, a leading cause of hearing loss, can be caused by prolonged exposure to any noise over 85 decibels (dB), Hughes says. So you should be aware that an MP3 player at full volume is 100dB; a concert, auto race, or sporting event could be around 110dB; and gunshots or fireworks, around 140dB. “If you can’t avoid prolonged exposure to loud noise,” Hughes advises, “wear foam earplugs or earmuffs that fit over the entire outer ear.”
- Quit smoking. “Smoking has been shown to be a risk factor for hearing loss,” Hughes says, because the chemicals in cigarette smoke can affect the hearing mechanisms of both the middle ear and the inner ear. Need another reason to quit? Do it for your kids or grandkids. A 2011 study conducted at the New York University School of Medicine found that exposure to tobacco smoke nearly doubles the risk of hearing loss among teens.
- Manage your diabetes well. “Both diabetes and high blood pressure can predispose you to developing hearing loss,” Hughes says. A National Institutes of Health study found that hearing loss is twice as common in people who have diabetes than in those who don’t. Poor blood-sugar control, over time, can damage the small blood vessels and nerves in the inner ear that assist with hearing. A recent study conducted at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit found that women between the ages of 60 and 75 with well-controlled diabetes had better hearing than women with poorly controlled diabetes. Insufficient blood flow in the inner ear or related areas of the brain, which can be caused by cardiovascular disease, untreated high blood pressure, or other conditions, can also contribute to hearing loss.
- Get screened. If you’re 50 or older, or if you’re younger but believe that you have experienced hearing loss, make an appointment with an audiologist to get an exam. If you’d like a preview, take this free, quick, and confidential online hearing check first.