Some 48 million Americans are living with hearing loss today. While around 100,000 of those people were born with hearing loss, the majority acquired it at some point in their lives. Some of the causes of acquired hearing loss include:
- Ear Infection – Children often experience temporary hearing loss as a result of ear infections (otitis media). If ear infections are frequent, they may result in permanent hearing loss. This is why doctors sometimes suggest putting “tubes in the ears” of children who have frequent ear infections. The tubes allow pressure to vent to the ear canal, preventing damage to the inner ear.
- Ototoxic Medications – “Ototoxic” means “toxic to the ear.” Some life-saving medications can cause hearing loss, including certain drugs for cancer treatment.
- Head Injury – Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can cause hearing loss without visibly damaging the ears, though often head traumas damage the ear itself by blunt force. Because we hear as much with our brains as our ears, sometimes hearing can be affected by an injury that might not appear to affect the ear.
One of the frequent types of hearing damage caused by head injury is so-called “hidden hearing loss.” Hidden hearing loss is the result of signal leakage on the auditory nerve, which carries the information of sound from the ears to the auditory cortex in the brain. In complex, noisy sound situations, a person may not be able to understand speech, but quieter environments may pose less of a problem. Because there is nothing wrong with their ears, someone with hidden hearing loss will appear to have normal hearing on a pure-tone hearing test, where simple tones are played in a quiet booth. The hearing loss is, in effect, “hidden” from testing.
- Some Diseases – Diseases that can cause hearing loss in the aftermath include meningitis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, encephalitis, and flu. There are also certain cancers and benign tumors that can cause hearing loss, as well as Meniere’s disease.
While these are certainly serious problems to look out for, there are two causes of acquired hearing loss that are responsible for the vast majority of hearing loss: noise and aging.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)
Noise-induced hearing loss, or “NIHL,” is one of the two most common causes of hearing loss. NIHL was on the decline toward the end of the 20th century after OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) put regulations in place to prevent NIHL on the job. But it is bouncing back in a big way.
About 10% of millennials have hearing loss, and about 17% of Gen-Z’ers have it. This is concerning especially because Gen-Z is the younger of the two generations. There are a number of possible causes for this. It may be because of increased power efficiency in public address systems, allowing smaller sound systems to produce more sound. It could also be increased use of PLDs (personal listening devices), which are also capable of producing higher volume levels than ever before.
Sounds at or above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss, depending on the duration. At 85 dBA (about the sound level of a gas-powered lawnmower), hearing loss sets in after about 8 hours of exposure. For every additional 3 dBA, the safe period of exposure is cut in half. That means by the time we get to 100 dBA (about the sound level of the average high school dance), hearing loss sets in after about 15 minutes.
While NIHL, like any kind of sensorineural hearing loss, is not curable, it is completely preventable. Hearing protection should be worn whenever sound is too loud, and care should be exercised with PLDs.
Age-Related Hearing Loss (Presbycusis)
Audiologists debate over whether age-related hearing loss is an actual medical condition, or if it just happens that the typical modern lifestyle tends to lead to hearing loss by the time we reach our 70s. In either case, the phenomenon of age-related hearing loss, or “presbycusis,” is real!
About one-third of people aged 60–69 have hearing loss, and two-thirds of those aged 70 and up have it. However it may happen, acquired hearing loss should be treated in order to prevent complications. The most common and effective current treatment for hearing loss is the use of hearing aids, and hearing aids today are better than ever. They offer their wearers advanced sound processing and wireless Bluetooth connectivity to all the devices we use daily.
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