Age-Related Hearing Loss Explained

our_ear.jpgThere are well over 9 million hard of hearing residing in the UK. Figures published in 2005 by the then RNID (now ‘Action On Hearing Loss’) suggested that one in six UK resident suffers from some degree of hearing loss. The survey, which is still the most comprehensive on the subject in the UK, further estimated that the biggest group of well over 6 million are individuals over the age of 65 years old. The most common cause of hearing loss amongst this group are age- related and noise-induced. It is important to understand the reasons behind age- related hearing loss as sensory impairment can often be managed. Choosing to ‘just live with it’ can often result in a reduced quality of life.

What Causes Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can be caused by a whole host of reasons, some short term; for example an infection, while others are more long term such as noise-induced and age-related. When it comes to age-related hearing loss causes, the impairment is completely natural and just a side effect of getting older. Most individuals will experience the tell tale signs of hearing loss as they mature from roughly the age of 40 years old, though the vast majority are the over 65s. The severity of age-related hearing loss will vary between individuals.

Our hearing system as well as other sensory systems is a complex one involving the workings of various organs in conjunction with the brain. The inner ear includes microscopic hair like structures that are designed to capture waves of sound at various frequencies. These sounds (waves or vibrations of air) are than passed by means of the auditory nerve to the brain to interrupt. As we grow older, the hair like structures die, damage or deteriorate in quality. As the body is unable to regrow them, the result is a difficulty in capturing certain frequencies. In fact over 90% of permanent hearing losses are linked with the deterioration of the tiny inner or outer hair cells.
What Are The Symptoms Of Age Related Hearing Loss
It can include difficulty in hearing the people around you within noisy environments. The background noise may seem far too loud compared to the actual speech. You may also notice the following:
●    Sounds seem less clear
●    Not being able to hear the telephone of door bell ring when others can
●    Other people may sound mumbled or slurred
●    Inability to hear high-pitched sounds such as "s" and "th"
●    Often having to ask people to repeat themselves
●    Having to have the television or radio turned up much higher than other family members
●    Feeling tired after participating in a conversation held within background noise

Managing Hearing Loss

Because the body is unable to regrow the microscopic hair cells, effective course of action recommended by a health care providers revolves around managing the condition. Any such course of action must start with a hearing test to pinpoint the reason for the hearing impairment.

An audiologist will normally start the test by asking you general questions about your lifestyle and overall health to take into account influencing factors such as hobbies, job, age and past illnesses. The next step will involve a physical examination of the ear to rule out medical conditions such as blockage and infection. Finally you are ready for the actual hearing test, most commonly a pure tone audiometry type in which your sensitivity of hearing at different frequencies is tested.

At the end of the test, assuming a degree of loss is established; you may be presented with a number of means to manage the condition. These often take the form of hearing aids or assistive listening devices. They work on the basis of amplifying external sounds and are designed to fit a whole host of lifestyles. The most common are hearing aids that reside inside or just outside the ear and suitable for most day-to-day activities. Next are a group of more dedicated aids of the assistive listening devices type that include products such as amplified phones, vibrating alarm clocks and TV hearing aids. Hearing aids are available at no charge from the NHS (a waiting list will apply and models are limited) or privately, however assistive listening devices are only available privately.

Final Notes

If you are concerned about your hearing, book a hearing test or talk with your GP. You may also consider taking an online hearing test to gauge a possible hearing loss, though it should not replace a physical hearing test.

Resources

Action on Hearing Loss
On-line Hearing Test

Article written by Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hearing Direct and she writes a weekly blog about hearing loss.