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Hearing loss, also known as hearing impairment or deafness, is the inability to detect or a decreased sensitivity to sounds. Unfortunately, hearing loss is extremely common and becomes even more prevalent as we age. Presbycusis is a term that specifically refers to the loss of hearing as we age. It is estimated that 1 in 3 of adults in the US ages 65 to 75 have some degree of hearing loss. For those above the age of 75, almost 1 in 2 people have hearing impairment.
When describing hearing loss, it is useful to consider the type of hearing loss, degree of hearing loss, and configuration of hearing loss (2). In children, it is important to diagnose hearing loss as soon as possible as it may have drastic consequences on learning and development. However, hearing loss also can have negative ramifications for adults considering it can impact employment, education, and general wellbeing.
Types of hearing loss include the following:
To fully understand how hearing loss occurs, it is helpful to understand how the human body detects sounds, or hears. First, sound is collected by the outer most part of the ear, known as the pinna. Sound is then funneled through the ear canal and eventually to the eardrum, or the tympanic membrane. The tympanic membrane is in contact with three small bones in the middle ear, which allow transmission of sound (and can amplify it as well) through the middle ear eventually to the inner ear. The inner ear has a fluid-filled snail-like structure known as the cochlea. Within the cochlea lie small nerve cells with “hairy” projections, which turn sound into electrical signals that propagate to your brain and allow you to perceive sound.
According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors believe hearing loss stems from both hereditary and environmental factors. And, the causes of hearing loss are often times specific to the type.
Causes of conductive hearing loss include:
Causes of sensorineural hearing loss include:
Causes of mixed hearing loss include:
According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are risk factors for hearing loss:
Although hearing loss is very common, it is often under-diagnosed. In addition to a thorough medical history and physical examination (which will likely include a visual examination of the outer ear canal and ear drum with the use of an otoscope), your physician may do the following to diagnose your condition:
Symptoms of hearing loss include the following:
The prognosis for each type hearing loss varies. In general, those with minimal hearing loss and early treatment will have the best prognosis.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, when someone has hearing loss, the first step in coping with it is simply acknowledging it’s a reality. Although this can be difficult, it is vital because on it is acknowledged, treatment options can be sought. As stated above, hearing aids and cochlear implants are often very effective treatment strategies.
In addition to or before treatment, it is often helpful for the person communicating with a patient with hearing loss to do the following:
The person with hearing impairment can do the following to improve communication:
Screening for hearing loss is easy and quick. All babies should be screened for hearing impairment within 1 month of life. If the screening results suggest hearing impairment, the baby should undergo a full hearing test.
According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, or USPSTF, concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for hearing loss in asymptomatic adults aged 50 years or older.
As the definitive treatment for hearing impairment remains medications, procedures, and surgery, alternative treatments for this condition should only be considered after definitive traditional medicine and discussion with your physician.
Complementary medicine, which refers to interventions performed in addition to traditional or standard treatment, are numerous and may provide additional symptom relief and improved quality of life for many patients. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, these include:
If you are beginning to experience difficulty with hearing or pain in the ear, it is wise to seek medical attention. In general, you can visit your primary care physician with these concerns first and then he or she can refer you to a specialist, such as an ENT or otolaryngologist, to ensure optimal care.
Your medical team may consist of several healthcare professionals, including your primary care physician, an ENT (Ears, Nose and Throat doctor or otolaryngologist), and an audiologist. You can find healthcare providers near you here: http://thirdage.com/care-provider
Other useful resources to help you learn about hearing loss can be found at:
Hearing Loss Association of America: http://www.hearingloss.org/
American Speech Language Hearing Association: http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Hearing-Loss/
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
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