Skip to Content
UW Health SMPH
American Family Children's Hospital
DONATE Donate
SHARE TEXT

Hearing Loss

Hearing deteriorates naturally with age. Sixty percent of all people over the age of 65 and 90 percent of those over age 80 have some degree of hearing impairment. But exposure to noise in today's environment often accelerates the damage of aging.
 
Because hearing loss usually occurs gradually, many people do not realize when the problem has progressed far enough to warrant wearing a hearing aid.
 
The National Hearing Aid Society, a non-profit trade group, suggests you have your hearing checked if you:
  • Turn up the volume of the television or radio to the point that others complain
  • Strain to hear conversations
  • Misunderstand words or ask people to repeat what they've said
  • Watch other people's faces intently when you listen to them
  • Realize the effort to hear leaves you irritated and tired
  • Feel that people don't speak as clearly as they used to
  • Experience ear infections, ringing in the ears or dizziness

Causes of Hearing Loss

 

Any of the following can increase your risk for hearing loss:

  • Exposure to extremely loud noise without ear protection. Examples of loud noise may include:
    • Tractors
    • Heavy machinery
    • Firearms
    • Power tools
    • Concerts
     
  • Exposure to toxic drugs or fumes
     
  • A family history of hearing loss
     
  • A personal history of diabetes, heart disease, thyroid problems or circulatory problems
     
  • Exposure to certain drugs including aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen), furosemide (Lasix), or quinidine (Cardioquin, Quinagiate). If certain drugs are causing hearing loss, reducing the dosage or switching to an alternative medication can help. Discuss these options with your physician.

Types of Hearing Loss

 

The sensation of sound is produced when sound waves vibrate the tympanic membrane (eardrum), which transmits vibrations through the bones of the middle ear to the cochlea. Hair cells in the cochlea then transmit sound to the auditory nerve, which relays the signal to the brain for processing.

 

Hearing loss is classified according to the location of the weak link in this chain of events. Hearing loss that is caused by problems in the ear canal, eardrum or middle ear is referred to as conductive hearing loss. Hearing loss that occurs because of damage in the cochlea or auditory nerve is termed sensorineural hearing loss.

  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss

    Many people with age-related hearing loss find they can still hear people speaking, but they just can't make out all the words. That's because hearing losses are often greatest in the high frequencies. Some consonant sounds like s, t, f and th are in this range, an obvious source of confusion for the listener who can't discern the difference between cat, sat, fat or that.

    The most common type of age-related hearing loss is called sensorineural or nerve deafness. Actual nerve damage is rare. The problem is usually in the tiny hair cells that line the inner ear and transmit sound in the form of vibrations to the nerves. These hair cells deteriorate with age, and can be damaged by a high fever, birth defects, prolonged exposure to loud noise, and fluid buildup in the inner ear (Meniere's disease).

    In addition to high-frequency hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is characterized by the inability to distinguish high-frequency sounds (consonant sounds such as s, t, f, and th) and often accompanied by an uncomfortable or even painful sensitivity to loud sounds and by rattling or buzzing sensations. Sensorineural hearing loss is usually not treatable, but a hearing aid can help compensate for some of the lost hearing.

    Sudden changes in hearing may indicate a serious medical condition and should be evaluated by a physician and an audiologist.
     
  • Conductive Hearing Loss

    Less commonly, hearing loss results from a failure of the physical structures in the outer and middle ear that conduct sound impulses to the nerve centers in the inner ear.

    Such conductive loss usually blocks and muffles sound uniformly, as would happen if you covered your ears with your hands. Wax blockage, a hole in the tympanic membrane, birth defects, ear infections and heredity can all cause conductive loss, which can often be corrected with medication or surgery. When medical treatment cannot help enough, a hearing aid is warranted.