Hear This: Understand and Limiting Hearing Loss

Listen up. This is one of those good news/bad news stories. First, the bad news. No matter how hard you try, there isn’t much you can do to prevent hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss affects approximately one-third of all people aged sixty-five and older. Age-related hearing loss is due to the changes that occur in the body as we grow older. Circulatory disorders, for example, which limit the flow of blood throughout the body, as well as to the brain and auditory system, are common in later years.

There are any number of reasons why circulation slows down as we grow older, among them heart disease, hardening of the arteries, diabetes, and sedentary lifestyles. And there are a number of lifestyle and work-related activities that aggravate hearing loss. However, this actually is the good news part:  You can do something to help prevent or limit unnecessary and premature hearing loss.

Nature will run its course

Over a lifetime, both the external ear and the inner ear experience changes. In the external ear, the ear canal narrows, which can cause an easily remedied buildup of earwax that can temporarily impair hearing. The most common age-related hearing loss, however, occurs from changes in the inner ear. At birth, people have about 15,000 sensory “hair” cell receptors lining the cochlea, the spiral-shaped cavity of the inner ear that contains nerve endings essential for hearing. As people age, these sensory cell receptors degenerate or are damaged, causing a form of hearing loss called sensorineural.

Some people lose up to half these cells. This type of loss (also called nerve deafness) can be caused by infections, hereditary problems, trauma and benign tumors, but it is most often a result of aging. The loss usually begins in middle age, occurs in both ears simultaneously, and progresses slowly, beginning with high-frequency sounds such as speech, and slowly stealing the ability to distinguish between sounds.

For the aging baby-boom generation, research shows exposure to loud music may be exacerbating the age-related hearing loss. Experts have known for many years that exposure to too much loud noise produces hearing loss. This condition, known as noise-induced hearing loss, affects construction workers, farmers, musicians, airport workers and people in the armed forces, among others. Sometimes repeated exposure to loud noise causes a ringing, hissing or roaring sound in the ears, called tinnitus. Loud music, personal music technology (phones, MP3 players, etc.) and other prolonged or cumulative noise exposure has shifted causes of hearing loss from war and heavy industry to recreation.

Take steps to reduce hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable. Clinicians note several ways to protect and preserve hearing. First and foremost, wear protection in loud situations. The general rule is that if it’s too loud to carry on a conversation without raising your voice, then it’s too loud for your ears. Experts recommend wearing ear protection when using power lawn mowers, listening to live music or firing guns.

In addition, good nutrition and vitamins can help. Niacin, for example, causes vasodilatation, a widening of the arteries, and that helps circulation, as does exercise. It’s important to maintain good blood circulation to protect the hair cells. Limiting caffeine and nicotine intake also can protect hearing and reduce tinnitus.

More good news is that technologic advances are improving options for those with age-related hearing loss. A decade ago, hearing aids did little to help with the earliest stages of sensorineural hearing loss. However, changes and advances over the past several years have allowed many patients with age-related hearing loss to benefit greatly from new hearing aid technology. With the advent of micro-circuitry, hearing aids are now being designed with computer chips that allow multiple programs to be placed in a single hearing aid. These “programmable” hearing aids can be customized to give an individual the best response. The various programs allow the user to select a specific setting for different listening situations, from a quiet conversation to a noisy meeting place.

These and other advances in the auditory sciences will benefit all of us, eventually. But we can start by taking charge of our hearing health now.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!