Many changes that occur as we age may not be preventable. But did you know one common problem among senior adults—hearing loss—isn’t one of them? Many seniors and their loved ones have come to expect that some hearing loss is inevitable. While it’s true that gradual hearing loss is not uncommon, especially after age 65, there are actions we can take while we’re younger to ward off its severity.
Facts about hearing and hearing loss
The National Institutes of Health estimate one third of people between the ages of 65 and 75 have some hearing loss, and about one half of those older than 75 have some trouble hearing normal sounds. About 40% of Canadians who have hearing loss are 65 or older.
When sound waves reach the structures of the inner ear, they cause vibrations at the eardrum before travelling through the cochlea. Attached to nerve cells within the cochlea are thousands of tiny hairs that help translate these vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain.
The medical term for the gradual hearing loss that comes with age is presbycusis. It’s caused by a loss of these tiny hair cells that act as sound receptors, and also from free radical damage that can clog up the ear’s tissues that act as sound amplifiers. Another reason hearing loss occurs is a build-up of wax in the inner ear. Earwax can block the ear canal and prevent conduction of sound waves. This type of hearing loss can usually be restored with earwax removal.
Since hearing loss can start at any age, prevention measures should start early, and become a lifelong habit.
Here are 5 of the most important ways to prevent unnecessary hearing loss:
- Avoid Harmful Noises: Unfortunately, due to environmental factors, people of all ages are now experiencing hearing loss at younger ages and quicker rates. Reduce the noise in your life by turning down the volume on the stereo, TV, car radio—and especially when using personal listening devices with headphones or ear buds. If you use headphones to listen to music, don’t turn the volume up past 50%, and never exceed 80% even for a short time. Activities and equipment that are the most dangerous for our ears include: snowmobiling, hunting, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, jet skis and power tools. Always wear ear protection when involved in these activities and sports, and especially in workplaces where prolonged exposure to loud noises is common. The Mayo Clinic recommends pre-formed or custom-molded earplugs made of plastic or rubber as one way to prevent hearing loss.
- Use proper hygiene: Never stick a cotton swab, or other object in your ear to remove earwax, or scratch your ear. If earwax if causing you problems with hearing, speak to your doctor about the best way to remove it. Always blow your noise gently and use both nostrils. During air travel, swallow and yawn frequently when the plane is landing. If you have a cold, flu, a sinus infection, or other upper respiratory illness, take a decongestant a few hours before your plane lands, or use a nasal spray right before landing.
- Keep medical conditions under control: Conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis and other circulatory illnesses that are not treated properly can lead to hearing loss. The inner parts of the ear are sensitive and delicate so any circulation problems you have can affect your hearing. Trouble hearing is also likely to occur in people who smoke.
- Talk to your doctor about your medications: Some medications, although not many, can affect your hearing. For example, temporary effects on your hearing can occur if you take large doses of aspirin. Certain kinds of diuretics can also affect hearing. Since hearing loss is partially genetic, let your doctor know if anyone in your family has trouble hearing.
- Don’t wait to see the doctor: After noise-related damage to the ear happens, it can’t be reversed, but further damage is preventable. If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, get your hearing checked by a professional. If you are genetically predisposed to hearing loss, take precautions right away. There is some evidence that supplements can prevent hearing loss, but always check with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.
The Mayo Clinic offers these signs that you or a loved one might be experiencing hearing loss:
- Muffling of speech and other sounds
- Difficulty understanding words, especially in a crowd of people or if there is background noise
- Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
- Always feeling the need to turn up the volume of the TV or music
- Typically withdrawing from conversations, and avoidance of some social settings.
- The editors of MayoClinic.com
- The editors of WebMD.com
- The editors of HearingCenterOnline.com
- “Preventing Hearing Loss,” by Mark Stibich, Ph.D for About.com/HealthyLiving
- The Senior Health Center at EverydayHealth.com
- The National Institutes of Health, nihseniorhealth.gov