Although many people associate hearing loss with age, it’s not explicitly an “old person’s” problem. People of all ages can experience hearing loss. In the U.S., 48 million people experience hearing loss to some degree, but not all of those cases are in those aged 70 and older. Approximately 27 million adults experience hearing loss before they approach senior age. In fact, one in eight people over the age of 12 have hearing loss in both ears.
Even though people at any age can be susceptible to hearing loss, many young people don’t schedule annual checkups like they might at the optometrist for their eyes or at the dentist for their oral health. Not regularly checking in on your hearing can be detrimental in the long run: hearing loss is permanent and irreversible, and years or decades of bad hearing care habits can mean you won’t catch an issue early on. Read on to learn why investing in proper hearing care and protection is vital for people of every age.
Why is regular audiology care important for your hearing and health?
Think about all your annual checkups. You go to the doctor once a year for a routine physical, you visit your dentist twice a year to keep your teeth free of cavities and remove buildup that even the best floss can’t dislodge, and even if you don’t need glasses, you probably see your eye doctor occasionally to make sure your vision is fine. It’s just as important to see an audiologist regularly to make sure you’re not experiencing hearing loss – and even if you have no reason to think you have hearing loss, you might be wrong.
Hearing loss is often thought of as a less dramatic change than a toothache or changing vision – many of us simply turn up the volume and move on without thinking twice. That’s all the more reason to check up on your hearing annually: Most hearing loss is far too subtle to notice and instead manifests in long-term, gradual declines that only become obvious over long periods of time. You likely won’t know that your hearing is declining without regular audiology care.
When you visit an audiologist, your healthcare provider will do more than test your hearing levels. You’ll also learn important tips for protecting your hearing, and you’ll learn more about your hearing protection options. Regularly visiting a hearing professional is the best way to maintain your hearing levels within a healthy range.
How does hearing loss happen?
In people of all ages, hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ears. To understand the science behind hearing loss, it’s important to first understand the structure of your ears. The hole we see in the outer ear leads to the ear canal, which leads to the middle ear. There, three small bones called the hammer, anvil, and stirrup work with the eardrum to propel sound toward your inner ear, which transmits these sounds to your brain for processing.
Hearing loss tends to take place in the ear canal and middle ear. The ear canal is lined with hair cells called cilia that are extremely sensitive to loud, high-volume sounds. When high-decibel sound waves pass over cilia, the cells can be destroyed. Unlike most other cells in your body, cilia cannot be replaced naturally. With each hair cell that gets damaged or dies off, your hearing levels decrease.
Many cases of hearing loss proceed gradually as cilia die, but sometimes, this damage comes on suddenly. Exposure to unexpected loud, high-decibel noise, such as fireworks or a clap of thunder, can result in immediate hearing loss. Disease and traumatic brain injury can also cause non-gradual cilia damage. Despite these hard-to-avoid situations and natural factors such as aging causing hearing loss, most hearing loss is mild enough that a hearing professional can help to address it.
Loud sound exposure: What are decibels and how do they impact my hearing?
Decibels, often represented using the abbreviation dB, are the scientific units used to measure sound. Loud sounds will have much higher decibel levels than quiet sounds. Below are some everyday sounds and their decibel levels:
- Your breathing: 10 dB
- Whispers: 30 dB
- Refrigerator hum: 40 dB
- Normal conversation: 50 to 65 dB
- Vacuums and hair dryers: 70 dB
- City traffic and noise: 80 dB
Noise levels of 85 dB or higher are generally considered high-volume enough to cause hearing loss after prolonged or repeated exposure. Some examples include:
- Lawnmowers: 85-90 dB
- Trains and subways: 100 dB
- Live rock music: 110 to 140 dB
- Thunder: 120 dB
- Gunfire: 130 dB
- Fireworks: 145 dB
Are there different types of hearing loss?
There are two types of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Some cases that include features of both types are called mixed hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is the more common type of hearing loss, affecting nine out of every 10 people with hearing loss.
Sensorineural hearing loss: causes and symptoms
Sensorineural hearing loss describes the hearing loss that accompanies the death of cilia. It also describes damage to the auditory nerve that transmits the inner ear’s signals to the brain. Its most common causes are aging – sensorineural hearing loss tends to most strongly affect those aged 70 and older – and loud noise. Less commonly, it can be caused by certain diseases, medications, injuries, or cancerous growths in your ears.
People with sensorineural hearing loss may struggle to understand people in conversation. It’s especially prevalent when the conversation involves more than two people. Tinnitus can also be a symptom of sensorineural hearing loss, as can dizziness and challenges hearing high-pitched audio. Many people with sensorineural hearing liken their symptoms to “blurred,” rather than muted, hearing.
Conductive hearing loss: causes and symptoms
Conductive hearing loss involves damage to the outer or middle ear instead of to the cilia or auditory nerve. It tends to involve blockage of the ear rather than damage to bodily tissue, so sometimes, conductive hearing loss is reversible – only a hearing professional will be able to determine this for you. Causes of conductive hearing loss include fluid buildup in the middle ear, ear infections, perforated eardrums, earwax buildup, swimmer’s ear, and many other physical obstacles.
People with conductive hearing loss will often hear significantly better in one ear than the other. Pain and pressure in the ears may also accompany conductive hearing loss, whereas sensorineural hearing loss tends to lack physical symptoms. A bad smell coming from the ears or a different perception of your own voice can also indicate conductive hearing loss.
Who is at risk for hearing loss?
Everyone is at risk for hearing loss, no matter their age or profession. Whether you’re younger or older, living in an urban environment with lots of noise or a quieter suburb or rural area, your ears receive audio input regularly, and even the quietest sounds have minor impacts on your ear that can result in hearing loss over extended periods of time.
Everyday activities such as listening to music in your headphones or on a stereo can expose you to volume of enough decibels to cause hearing loss. Your professional life can also expose you to dangerous sound levels. You may need to consider hearing protection if you work in the following fields or enjoy doing the below activities:
- Landscaping or farming. Running a lawnmower or tractor for more than just a few seconds is enough to cause hearing loss.
- Garbage retrieval and disposal. Professional garbage workers are regularly exposed to loud sounds from the in-truck compacted.
- Airport tarmac work. Jet flyovers and takeoffs are among the loudest sounds.
- Loud tool usage. Jackhammers and power saws can be even louder than jet flyovers.
- Concertgoing or casual music listening. Stereos can easily emit sound as loud as 110 to 125 dB of volume, and a loud rock show can easily reach 140 dB.
- Lighting fireworks, setting off explosions, or firing guns. Fireworks, guns, and explosions may be brief, but their impact on your hearing can be lifelong.
How to protect your hearing
Although hearing loss is often considered a normal part of getting older, you can — and should — protect your hearing while you’re young. You can easily protect your hearing with the following measures:
- Use earplugs. Wear these devices when exposing yourself to sounds of 85 dB volume or more. A 2016 Dutch study showed that earplugs with noise reduction rates of 18 dB can drastically reduce the occurrence of hearing loss among people attending loud rock shows. Earplugs can be purchased from a drugstore or online, or custom earplugs can be made for you.
- Use earmuffs. Specialized hearing protection in the form of earmuffs or noise-canceling headphones may be a necessity if you work around or are regularly exposed to loud noises. In fields that require this hearing protection, your supervisor may sometimes provide it from the get-go, sometimes called personal protection equipment (PPE).
- Don’t blast music in your headphones. When using headphones to listen to music, never increase the volume to more than 60 percent of your device’s maximum volume. If you find yourself in environments so loud that 60 percent just isn’t cutting it, opt for noise-canceling headphones.
- Schedule regular check-ups with your hearing professional. Regularly seeing your audiologist or a hearing professional is the most reliable way to keep track of your hearing and discuss options for protecting your hearing.
Contact I Love Hearing to find the right hearing protection for you
Depending on your work and hobbies, one hearing protection method might work better for you than others. The decision can be tough to navigate without consulting a professional audiologist for help. At I Love Hearing, our audiologists and hearing professionals have decades of experience offering hearing protection solutions to people of all ages and lifestyles.
We operate four locations in Manhattan, Nassau County on Long Island, and the New York metro so that you can get to us from wherever you are. Once you arrive, we’ll consult you about your noise exposure, test your hearing, offer you hearing protection solutions, and even discuss hearing aids to counter hearing loss or tinnitus. Contact us to book an appointment and discuss your options for long-term hearing preservation with our specialists.