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Hearing loss is a major problem in the United States. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, around 15 percent of adults have lost some hearing. In addition to making communicating difficult, hearing loss may have other ramifications, including dementia.
Patients generally come to an audiologist because they’re already experiencing hearing problems. There’s a lot we can do to help them, but the better choice is prevention. By adopting strategies to preserve hearing, people can keep that sense intact and, we hope, avoid the need for future treatments.
Age is a major factor, so some hearing loss is unavoidable. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention to our hearing as we get older. But people can (and should) make life changes to preserve their hearing. Remember, for the most part, hearing loss is irreversible. Prevention is the best solution.
What Causes Hearing Loss
There are three major types of hearing loss. Conductive affects the outer or middle ear; sensorineural the inner ear. Mixed is a combination. Inner ear damage is often caused by aging and noise.
Sound moves through the outer ear to the middle ear. Here, three small bones (called ossicles) amplify vibrations, which pass through cochlear fluid in the inner ear. Ultimately, the cochlea sends electrical signals to the brain.
Sometimes, hearing loss is hereditary or caused by ear infections, sinus congestion, or other health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. In addition, eardrums may be ruptured by sudden pressure changes or intense noise. Smoking also contributes to hearing loss, even second-hand smoke. Many of these issues are avoidable.
To preserve hearing, the first rule is pay attention. Schedule an annual hearing exam, regardless of your age. This is more than just listening to various beeps in a headset. An audiologist will learn about your lifestyle and help identify risk factors, such as work- related noise, smoking, or prescription drugs, that could affect your hearing.
Hearing loss is often lifestyle related. Noisy work environments and loud leisure activities, such as sports venues, firearms, and live music, contribute to hearing loss. An audiologist may recommend customized earplugs or other hearing protection based upon your listening needs.
People can manage their hearing health by tracking their noise exposure—technology can help. It’s easy to download smartphone apps to gauge exposure. This data can be shared with an audiologist. As a general rule, the ear can tolerate sounds at 80 decibels (e.g. garbage disposal) for several hours. However, exposure should be limited for levels above 95 decibels (e.g., gas lawn mower).
Certain antibiotics, cancer treatments, and other medications can also cause problems. People who must take these medicines should work extra hard to avoid loud noises and other risk factors.
Audiologists and patients should collaborate closely to stave off hearing loss. By working together, we can identify and mitigate risk factors and preserve hearing for decades to come. ●
Peter Marincovich, PhD, CCC-A, earned his PhD in Audiology from the University of Memphis. A native of Santa Rosa, CA, Dr. Marincovich has practiced in his hometown since 1984. He is the owner and director of Audiology Services and works with patients of all ages and levels of hearing loss.
SELECTED SOURCES: “Hearing loss linked to dementia” by Katherine Griffin, Katherine Bouton, AARP • “Quick statistics about hearing,” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, www.nidcd.nih.gov
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Dr. Peter Marincoivch