Overview

Hearing loss is an inevitable part of getting older. Unfortunately, it can engender hostility and annoyance from others and can lead to social isolation and depression. This can result in people trying to hide their hearing loss, becoming embarrassed by it, and ultimately, delaying seeking treatment.

Some live with the difficulty of this invisible disability for months, or even years, before seeking treatment. Some never seek help at all, even though simple solutions that could drastically improve their quality of life exist.

This guide explains the two different types of hearing loss: Presbycusis, which is age related hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when the tiny hair cells that line the cochlea are damaged.

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What is presbycusis?

As we age, we all start to lose some of our hearing abilities, though the degree of loss is extremely variable from person to person. It usually develops gradually, so it is often hard to notice the decline in our hearing capacity.

Typically, both ears are affected to the same degree, and sounds within the high-frequency range tend to be impacted more than deeper sounds at the start of the degeneration. Other sounds can seem to be too loud or overwhelming.

It’s estimated that presbycusis affects 30-40% of Australians over the age of 65 and a rise in the number of presbycusis cases is predicted. Modern day living is noisy, add that to the fact that young people are subjecting their ears to excessively loud music, and it’s no surprise that hearing loss is becoming more prevalent. This means that it is imperative to take measures to protect our hearing.

Aside from natural age-related hearing degradation, some other causes of hearing loss include:

  • Excessive exposure to loud noise

  • Viral or bacterial infections

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Traumatic injuries

  • Meniere’s disease

  • Growths in the inner ear

  • Medication side effects

  • Hereditary factors

  • Conductive hearing loss – caused by a physical blockage in the ear like a narrowing of the ear canal or a wax blockage.

It is important to wear hearing protection if sound levels at your workplace exceed 85 decibels, as being in this environment for sustained periods of time can be very damaging to the ears. Some people may experience temporary tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears, after a concert or being near construction, so earplugs are a great tool to prevent lasting damage.

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What is sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL)?

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is the most common form of hearing impairment and occurs when the tiny hair cells in the inner ear are damaged. It can also be caused by the hearing pathways to your brain becoming damaged or don’t function properly.

There are a range of possible causes for SNHL, including: 

  • Trauma from prolonged exposure to loud noise

  • Family history

  • Injury or trauma to the brain, nerves in the ear or cochlea

  • Infections

Hearing aids can help amplify the hearing you’ve already got.

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How can hearing loss impact me?

Hearing loss can affect people in many ways, the most common are:

  • Causing the person to withdraw from social situations, as they find it difficult to communicate and may feel embarrassed asking people to repeat themselves often.

  • Leaving a hearing loss untreated could lead to health conditions such as emotional problems like depression and anxiety, and could allow the hearing loss to become worse.

  • Less personal and professional opportunities as it is hard for the person to communicate clearly and efficiently.

Causes of Presbycusis

Presbycusis is typically caused by the degeneration of cells as we age but could also be caused or exacerbated by environmental and/or genetic factors, diseases, and certain medications.

Researchers have also found a connection between presbycusis and risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. So a healthy lifestyle can lessen the risk of age-related hearing loss, but genetic predisposition might also be a contributing factor. So, while it may be impossible to avoid hearing loss altogether, some preventative measures can be taken to stop it from worsening, such as:

  • Avoiding repetitive exposure to loud sounds.

  • Wearing ear protection when necessary.

  • Living a healthy lifestyle with nutritious food and exercise.

  • Taking measures to lower your blood pressure if it is high.

  • Controlling your blood sugar if you have diabetes.

Living with presbycusis

The most important thing to do if you suspect you have any form of hearing loss, is to see an audiologist or audiometrist. They will measure the degree of impairment and recommend treatment. Even though presbycusis cannot be completely reversed, there are a few ways that your hearing can be improved.

  1. Hearing aids – There are many different types and styles of hearing aids on the market today. They all use amplification to improve a person’s hearing, but they come in many shapes and sizes. Some are completely hidden in the ear canal, so that you can go about daily activities like speaking on the telephone and wearing headphones, exactly as you have been. Others sit behind the ear and connect to a dome inside the ear by a plastic tube or thin wire. You can try out some different styles to see which would work best for your lifestyle.

  2. Cochlear implants – This is a step up from hearing aids and typically serves those with a severe hearing loss. It is surgically implanted and doesn’t use amplification to help with hearing loss; instead it bypasses the damaged parts of the ear and sends the sound signals directly to the auditory nerve. The sounds you receive will be different to what you are used to if the severe hearing loss is caused by presbycusis rather than a congenital defect. So it will take time to get used to a cochlear implant.

  3. Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) – ALDs also use amplification to bring the sounds closer to the ear. They can be used in theatres, places of worship and even in the home. They make things like speech, the TV and radio, and environmental noises that we want to hear, louder. They can be used alongside hearing aids and implants to amplify sound even more.

Age-related hearing loss cannot be reversed entirely, but hearing aids or an assistive listening device can significantly improve your quality of life. Seek early treatment so that you can retain your current hearing, or minimise the loss, as soon as possible.

Some ways to manage hearing loss

  • Be honest and upfront when talking to friends and family. With a little understanding from them, you may not feel so isolated.

  • Make sure to face the person you are talking to in a well-lit room so that you can see their lips moving and read their facial expressions.

  • Speak to an audiologist about hearing aids or cochlear implants which use amplification to treat hearing loss.

If you think you may have age-related hearing loss, you should have your hearing checked as soon as possible.

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This guide is opinion only and should not be taken as medical or financial advice. Check with a financial professional before making any decisions.