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The Silent Epidemic: Hearing Loss in Older Adults

It is a growing epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 38 million Americans with hearing loss, including two-thirds of adults older than 70. Less than 20 percent of those affected use hearing aids.

A study of the effects of hearing loss by Johns Hopkins University found that untreated hearing loss is linked to dementia, depression, and a higher incidence of heart attacks and falls. Over a ten-year period, the data showed that untreated hearing loss was associated with a 52% greater risk of dementia, a 41% higher risk of depression, and an almost 30% greater risk for falls when compared to those who had no hearing loss. Those who start noticing hearing loss tend to wait, on average, seven years from the first signs of hearing loss to the time when they seek treatment.

When hearing loss begins depends partly on genetic factors and partly on long-term noise exposure. Noise exposure in early life such as working in loud industrial areas or listening to loud music can cause irreversible damage - think about those massive amplifiers at the rock concerts in days past!

It may go unnoticed in early life, but the damage will be evident as you grow older. In the same gradual way that you may notice changes in your vision while reading or an increasing frequency of memory lapses, changes in your hearing become more noticeable as the years pass.

How do we get an age-related hearing loss?

Age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, occurs gradually, usually in both ears. This decline in hearing can be caused by age-related changes in the inner ear or changes in the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. It occurs when the tiny hair cells in the inner ear are damaged or die as we age. Unlike many of our other cells, the hair cells in the inner ear do not regrow or regenerate. So far, there is no medical cure or surgery for age-related hearing loss. Hearing decline can also be accelerated by certain medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid problems, and high blood pressure and by taking medications such as chemotherapy drugs and certain antibiotics.

Signs of hearing loss

When hearing decline does happen, the first noticeable symptom is usually difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds such as women and children’s voices, especially when there is background noise. A common indicator of hearing loss is difficulty hearing words with a lot of consonants such as S, T, K, or F, since they are higher-pitched and harder to distinguish than vowels. As a result, it may sound like people are mumbling.

The difficulty in hearing high-pitched sounds will worsen over time and continue to the lower sound frequencies. At that point, you may have trouble understanding what people are saying due to the loss of clarity in your hearing.

Because age-related hearing loss most often gets worse slowly and develops over time, it is important to get your hearing checked regularly and to get your hearing aids adjusted regularly if you do develop an age-related hearing loss.

Seek treatment

If you think you have an age-related hearing loss, you should have your hearing checked with a hearing test. Contact your family doctor; an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist; or a hearing care professional. They can help you find out if you have an age-related hearing loss and would benefit from the use of hearing aids.

Hearing Aids

After your hearing has been tested, your doctor may recommend a hearing aid. Age-related hearing loss is normally treated with modern digital hearing aids. A more profound hearing loss may be treated with implants. Although there is no medical cure for age-related hearing loss, hearing aids help people with an age-related hearing loss hear better by using and strengthening the hearing ability that they still have.

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