We tend to take our hearing for granted, until we start to lose it. The sad thing is that once hearing loss occurs, it’s usually irreversible.
Read on to learn how delicate your hearing can be and what you can do to protect it.
Types of Hearing Loss
The gradual loss of hearing that occurs as we age is called presbycusis, and it is very common. By age 60, most people have a slight weakness in their ability to hear sounds above 4,000 hertz (cycles a second). Unfortunately, that’s the range in which speech falls.
The first sign of presbycusis is usually an inability to make out consonants – to distinguish between “sit” and “spit,” for example, or “pants” and “dance.”
Irreversible hearing loss can also be the result of high fever, measles, scarlet fever and certain other disease – or rarely, a side effect of surgical anesthesia.
A third form of hearing loss occurs when a small bone in the middle ear called the stapes loses its ability to transmit sound to the auditory nerve. This hereditary condition, otosclerosis, afflicts 3 percent of the population, mostly women. It may start at puberty, but typically comes on in the 20s, 30s or 40s.
Hearing loss can also be the result of a tumor or excessive ear wax or fluid buildup, which can be corrected using ventilation equipment or with surgery.
Protect Your Hearing
Beware of Loud Noise
You’re helpless against your genes and your age, but you can protect yourself against the major enemy of hearing – exposure to loud noise. Sustained nose above 85 decibels (the loudness of a shout or a crying infant) damages the nerve endings that transmit sound signals to the brain. Similar to presbycusis, the speech frequencies around 4,000 hertz are the first to go. Then higher and lower frequencies are affected.
If your nights are spent at a disco club or bar where the music is deafening or you often keep your headphones’ volume too high, you run the risk of lowering your hearing capacity to that of someone 30 or 40 years older than you.
To defend yourself, avoid noisy settings and use noise-blocking headsets or earplugs with noise-reduction ratings (NRR) of 15 or higher, as often as possible. All it takes is one extremely loud noise (such as a gunshot in close range) to cause permanent damage. If you experience sustained ringing in your ears or hearing difficulty, especially after exposure to loud noise, consult a hearing specialist immediately.
Beware of Fluid Buildup
A bad cold or flu often causes fluid buildup in the ear. If fluid accumulation becomes chronic, delicate structures in the middle ear can be permanently damaged. Persistent stuffiness (over a month) and frequent ear infections may require doctor-assisted drainage to protect the eardrum. Even fluid buildup in the ear while flying could potentially cause significant ear drum damage, so use doctor-prescribed decongestants prior to boarding the plane for your protection.
Hearing Loss Treatment
Though your hearing is never totally recovered when damage occurs, hearing aids or cochlear implants can be used to restore some of your hearing ability. Cochlear implants are tiny computers which turn sound in electromagnetic energy that is fed into the inner ear to stimulate the auditory nerve. These are used for more extreme cases, where hearing loss has affected both ears and hearing aids haven’t proven very effective.