Hearing loss is thought to impact the lives of over 35 million people in the US (source: The MarkeTrak VIII survey). The 2005 MarkeTrak VII report projected that the numbers of Americans with hearing loss will increase to 40 million by 2025 and 53 million by 2050. The majority linked to age related causes, a condition that can start in a person’s 40s but which is most apparent in the over 65s.
How Hearing Works?
In order to ‘hear’ a number of organs need to work in harmony to translate ‘triggers’ into meaningful information. The journey starts when sound waves are directed to the middle ear by the funneling effect of the outer ear (the pinna). This process pushes sound to the end of the ear canal causing the eardrum to vibrate and in turn passes these vibrations through three tiny bones of the ossicular chain in the middle ear. These three bones (malleus, incus and stapes) form a bridge to transfer the energy of the sound waves from the outer section of the ear through to the fluid section of the inner ear, the cochlea. A critical part of this journey culminates in the inner ear where thousands of tiny ‘hair cells,’ fire signals via the hearing nerve fibres to the brain to interpret.
Any interruption to this journey, whether it occurs in the outer, middle or inner ear can result in hearing difficulties. For the subject of age-related hearing loss the crucial factor is the deterioration of the ‘hair cells’ in the cochlea of the inner ear. During the natural process of ageing, these tiny hairs (cilia) begin to whither and deteriorate. This process tends to occur bilaterally (in both ears) and will compromise the message given to the brain to interpret. Once these hair cells begin to deteriorate they cannot regenerate and as such age-related hearing loss is irreversible. It does not mean however that it cannot be managed.
What Are The Telltale Signs?
It is important to investigate the reason for your hearing loss, as it will directly impact the available means to manage the condition. Examples, or early indicators of age-related hearing loss include, poor speech discrimination, the perception that people ‘mumble’ due to the loss of high frequency sound cues and difficulty hearing in background noise.
Why Is Hearing Loss Important To Address?
Hearing loss may lead to increasing withdrawal from social interaction. The culmination of misinterpreting conversation, asking people to repeat themselves and the tacit embarrassment of ‘struggling’ may ultimately lead to complete avoidance of social situations. Other documented side effects include feelings of anxiety and worry, loss of confidence and overall reduced quality of life.
How To Manage The Condition?
Once a full audiometric and diagnostic assessment has been undertaken and the degree and type of hearing loss established you will be given various solutions to help you manage your hearing loss. For age-related hearing loss a common recommendation will be some form of amplification, typically hearing aids. Digital (and to a lesser extent analogue) solutions are available both privately and through local hearing centers and are designed to process and amplify external sound. Hearing aids cannot replace ‘normal’ hearing but will work alongside one’s residual hearing to improve the auditory quality of life.
The second group of devices which can work alongside hearing aids or as standalone products are Assistive Listening Devices. ALD’s (Assistive Listening Devices) are products designed to overcome difficulties in singular and specific areas of concern – this may take the form of amplified telephones, TV listeners/ headsets or alerting devices, from doorbells to vibrating alarm clocks. Both hearing aids and ALD’s whether used in isolation or part of a hearing package will offer ways of managing a hearing impairment.
If you have any concerns about your hearing or you care for someone who is showing signs of hearing loss, consult with your health care provider.
Bio: Article by Melanie Lewis, Hearing Aid Audiologist, RHAD, MSHAA. Melanie works for Hearing Direct. For further information on hearing loss you can also visit the Hearing Loss Association Of America website.