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Your Hearing and Aging

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Updated August 25, 2007

Anatomy of the Ear

Anatomy of the Ear

ADAM Medical Encyclopedia
Age-related hearing loss, also called presbycusis, is the gradual loss of the ability to hear sounds (often high-pitched sounds). This loss of ability occurs so slowly that many people are not aware that they have hearing loss.

Causes of Age-Related Hearing Loss

The most common cause of hearing loss in aging adults is a loss of tiny hair cells in the ear. These cells act as receptors – they vibrate when sounds are present. The loss of hair cells is largely thought to be due to aging itself, though the following factors may also be important in some cases:
  • The combined effect of a lifetime of exposure to loud noises, such as traffic, construction work, noisy offices, heavy machinery, and loud music.
  • Hereditary factors – people who have family members with hearing loss are more likely to have hearing loss as they age.
  • Some health conditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, can cause presbycusis because they affect the blood supply available to the ear.
  • Some medications, such as aspirin and certain antibiotics, have also been found to contribute to presbycusis.

Symptoms

For a person with presbycusis, sounds seem deeper and less clear. Other symptoms can include:
  • Others' speech seems mumbled or slurred
  • High-pitched sounds are difficult to hear
  • Conversations are hard to follow
  • Background noise interferes with hearing
  • Men’s voices are easier to hear than women’s
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Treatment

Some people with presbycusis may need hearing aids. Hearing aids and other assistive hearing devices can help in certain situations, such as using a telephone. There are modifications that a person can make to his or her environment to help with hearing – see these tips for some ideas.

Prevention

Hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises can be prevented. Become aware of loud noises in your environment and take action to prevent them from damaging your ears. Earplugs should be used when you are exposed to firearms, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, jet skies, power tools, loud appliances, and snowmobiles. Be sure to keep the volume moderate when using headphones, and always wear earplugs at concerts.

The Stats

About 30 to 35 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 75 have some form of hearing loss. This can include partial hearing loss, the inability to hear certain frequencies, or hearing loss in one ear. Almost 50 percent of people over the age of 75 have some form of hearing loss with 30 percent of those over the age 85 having deafness in at least one ear.

Sources:

ADAM Medical Encyclopedia. Age-Related Hearing Loss

National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. Presbycusis. NIH Pub. No. 97-4235.

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