Baby Boomers Beware: Hearing Loss Hits Aging Population

More than 30 million Americans (one out of every 10 people) suffer from hearing loss.  Experts say most don’t most don’t even know they have a problem, due to the usually gradual progressive nature of the ailment.  People don’t hesitate to wear contacts or eyeglasses for better vision, but the tendency is to take hearing loss less seriously.

Hearing loss has skyrocketed over 26% among people ages 46 to 64 since the 1970’s.  Loud music, gas powered leaf blowers, portable music devices, not to mention endless noise pollution all around us; all have contributed to declines in hearing at younger ages.  Toxic noise is responsible for approximately 20% more people between the ages of 18 and 44 who have lost their hearing, according to a recent, federally sponsored study.

While prevention – turning down the volume on your stereo; or wearing earplugs are viable options that help to a certain degree.  Treatments, such as digital hearing aids are a viable option.  However, most people suffering from hearing difficulties are not taking advantage of the latest technologies.

Many people say they are embarrassed about the loss of hearing and the need to wear hearing aids.  Even when someone knows that there is something wrong, the average hearing loss sufferer takes years before he or she seeks help through the use of hearing aids.

The perception of sound is accomplished through an amazing bit of science.  The inner ear, or cochlea, contains 20,000 to 30,000 specialized hair cells that are deflected by sound.  When energy or vibrations reach these cells, it triggers electrical impulses from the ear to the auditory cortex of the brain.  The sound is not only heard, but also is interpreted.

Many things can damage these hair cells, from high doses of aspirin, anti-biotics, steroids, and pain killers; to genes, noise and smoking. Usually by the time we reach the age of 65, one of three people will have trouble understanding the spoken word.  The human ear was not designed to withstand the loud, chronic noise of modern life, said Dr. Jay Rubenstein, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Iowa.

When enough of these hair cells are damaged, people lose sounds that are normally modulated through those specific cells.  Hairs cells do not replenish, so once they are gone, that’s it.

Family members are usually the first to notice hearing loss in a loved one.  The television is louder.  They are frequently asked to repeat things.

Experts say the inner ear is so extremely sensitive to noise that the sensitivity alone is probably the most common cause of hearing loss.  Genetics play a role in this sensitivity to noise.

Richard Selvi, a professor of communicative disorders at the University of Buffalo, said levels of noise above 85 decibels should be avoided if possible.  An electric razor or vacuum cleaner puts out decibel levels that over a prolonged period of time can cause irreversible damage.  Salvi said people can lose hearing after only 30 minutes of exposure to a jet engine at over 115 decibels.  Some people have lost hearing permanently after one rock concert, with sounds pulsating at over 130 decibels. Salvi explained that loud, intense sounds, such as gunfire or firecrackers cause vibrations in the inner ear that literally tear apart the tissue that holds the hair cells in place.  That is the mechanical cause.

New studies also show that toxic noise also causes metabolic damage.  Over time, even moderate but consistent noise stresses the inner ear, producing oxygen free radicals.  These toxic cellular products may damage many cells of the body, including hair cells.  When these hair cells get stressed, the genetic machinery of the cell also starts pumping out harmful products, causing damage.

Rubenstein noted some types of hearing loss affect pure tones, and the death of other hair cells makes it difficult to understand speech.  Some people suffer from both problems.

The sooner hearing loss is diagnosed and treated, the more success the individual is likely to achieve.

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Leonardi Hearing Center
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