Was your hearing better when you were younger? Did you know that 25% of people between 55 and 64 experience hearing loss associated with aging? Almost 50% of people over 65 have lost some hearing. Why? In addition to normal aging, chronic exposure to loud noises such as truck engines, industrial machinery, and highly amplified music may be to blame.
Even without an official diagnosis, you may recognize a hearing issue if you: have difficulty understanding words in a noisy environment or a crowd; have difficulty distinguishing between consonant sounds; find others’ speech muffled; frequently ask people to repeat what they’ve said, or to speak more clearly, loudly or slowly; need to turn up the volume on the radio/TV; avoid conversations because they are too difficult to follow; and/or avoid social interactions.
When these symptoms interfere with your work or daily life, a professional can help identify where and why your hearing is affected. All three areas of your ear – outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear – are vital and must function well for optimal hearing to occur.
For hearing, sound waves must pass through the outer ear and travel to the eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear (hammer, anvil, and stirrup), which amplify the vibrations as they move to the inner ear. In the inner ear, the vibrations then pass through fluid in the cochlea (a snail-shaped structure) whose nerve cells have thousands of tiny hairs that translate sound vibrations into electrical impulses that get transmitted to your brain for interpretation.
Issues in any area can impact your ability to hear properly. For your outer or middle ear, ear infections and abnormal bone growths or tumors can lead to hearing loss. As well, your eardrum could rupture due to loud blasts of noise, sudden changes in pressure, infection, or being poked with a sharp object. Or, your ear canal may become blocked by a buildup of ear wax, preventing sound waves from being conducted to the eardrum. Or, your eardrum’s ability to vibrate effectively may diminish due to scarring and thickening caused by frequent, untreated ear infections and/or long-term exposure to excessive noise.
For your inner ear, damage from normal aging or exposure to loud noise can impact the ability of the hairs or nerve cells in the cochlea to send sound signals to the brain efficiently. When these hairs or nerve cells become damaged or are absent, electrical signals misfire, resulting in hearing loss. Higher pitched tones, in particular, may sound muffled, making it difficult to distinguish words against background noise.
Hearing loss has a number of risk factors. Normal aging breaks down the delicate structures in the inner ear. Illnesses accompanied by a high fever, such as meningitis, may damage your cochlea. Some antibiotic medications and chemotherapy drugs may damage your inner ear. Even high doses of aspirin, other pain relievers, anti-malarial drugs or loop diuretics may cause temporary tinnitus (ringing in the ear) or hearing loss.
Extended exposure to loud occupational or recreational noises, such as trucking, construction, farming, factory work, snowmobiling, motorcycling, and amplified music is also damaging. Unfortunately, for people with hereditary, sensorineural hearing loss, hearing loss is irreversible.
Although it is not possible to reverse many kinds of hearing loss, it is possible to protect your ears and avoid further damage by wearing specially designed, noise-canceling earmuffs that resemble earphones to reduce most loud sounds to an acceptable level while working or engaging in noisy activities; or, by using foam, pre-formed or custom-molded earplugs made of plastic or rubber, which are also effective.
Since truck driving is an identified hearing risk, schedule yearly hearing tests to discover early hearing loss. If advised, consider optimizing your hearing by having earwax blockages removed; having tubes surgically inserted into your eardrum to allow it to vibrate freely; wearing hearing aids; or receiving a cochlear implant.
Keep your hearing safe and sound.
Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.