Hearing Loss: A Commonly Ignored Health Issue
Hearing loss is a significant public health problem in the United States. According to the NIDCD, it’s the third most common chronic health condition, exceeded only by arthritis and hypertension, in persons aged 65 and older. Furthermore, the Better Hearing Institute reports that there are just over 31 million Americans (three in ten aged 65 and over, one in six baby boomers) suffering from varying degrees of hearing loss. Although the benefits of hearing care are well documented in the research literature, most with hearing loss either don’t really know they have it or simply choose to ignore it. For those with hearing loss, gaining an understanding of your hearing health and hearing care options is the first step on the path to better hearing and an improved quality of life.
How Hearing Works
Our ears act in unison as an exquisite, precisely tuned system that converts sound waves into electrical signals that can be “heard” by the brain. The ear has three main divisions – the outer, middle, and inner ear – which function together to receive and send the sounds around us to the brain where they are processed for understanding. Located in the middle ear, attached to the inner surface of the eardrum (tympanic membrane) are the tiniest bones (ossicles) in the body: the malleus, incus, and stapes (commonly known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup). As the eardrum vibrates in response to sound energy, the motion is transferred via the three connected bones to the inner ear (cochlea), where thousands of delicate, microscopic sensory hair cells are located. The vibrations sensed by the hair cells are then converted into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve. A breakdown or disruption occurring in any part of the ear can result in hearing loss.
Types of Hearing Loss
In general, there are two main types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is a condition involving the outer and/or middle ear that prevents sound energy from transmitting normally through the ear canal, eardrum, and middle ear to the hair cells of the inner ear, resulting in a loss of loudness sensation. This type of hearing loss can be temporary or long term, and can be caused by a build-up of wax, fluid in the middle ear space, a perforated eardrum, or defective middle ear bones. Most of these losses can be treated successfully medically or surgically. If these forms of treatment are not optional or successful, hearing aids may significantly help compensate for the loss of loudness.
Sensorineural hearing loss, a condition involving the inner ear sensory hair cells and/or auditory nerve, is by far the most common type. In most cases, hair cells that are dysfunctional due to long-term exposure to loud sounds and/or the normal aging process, are unable to convert sound vibrations to electrical signals with the same degree of sensitivity as they once could. Once present, sensorineural hearing loss may continue to worsen and will in most cases be permanent. Typical symptoms include a loss of loudness perception and difficulties understanding speech, especially when background noise is present. Medical and surgical interventions are not a viable treatment option in the vast majority of cases. Fortunately, effective treatment is available through the use of advanced digital hearing aids and other assistive technologies.
Hearing care comes in many “flavors”, so shop wisely. To serve yourself well, seek a hearing care professional that offers truly comprehensive services for managing all of your needs. The best hearing care involves much more than just “free” hearing tests and creatively priced hearing aids. Instead, it involves professionally and ethically delivered services spanning hearing loss prevention, detection, diagnostics, treatment, and rehabilitation. To help you determine if you should seek hearing care now, take the test on the facing page. When considering your treatment options, your decisions should be based on a comprehensive, competently performed and interpreted battery of diagnostic audiologic tests.