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What causes hearing loss?

Hearing loss is the loss of hearing in one or both ears, ranging from mild to profound.

There are many causes, and it can affect anyone at any age, but it’s most common among people older than 60.

How common is it? Statistics show that about 16% of U.S. adults have hearing loss, and it’s twice as common as diabetes or cancer. About one out of five men and one out of eight women report they have at least some trouble hearing.

The good news is that there are numerous solutions, including hearing aids. By learning more about the symptoms, causes, tests, treatments and prevention of hearing loss, it is easier to understand how it impacts you or your loved one — and what you can do about it. The symptoms of hearing loss can vary depending on the type of hearing loss, the cause of hearing loss, and the degree of loss. For people with age-related hearing loss, it’s typical to experience what’s known as high-frequency hearing loss. Higher-pitched sounds, such as female voices and birds singing, may be harder to hear.

But in general, people who have hearing loss may experience any or all of the following:

— Difficulty understanding everyday conversation.

— A feeling of being able to hear but not understand.

— Having to turn up the TV or radio.

— Asking others to repeat often.

— Avoidance of social situations that were once enjoyable.

— A sense of exhaustion after a day of listening to other people.

— Increased difficulty communicating in noisy situations like restaurants, lively family gatherings, in the car or in group meetings.

— Tinnitus, or ringing and/or buzzing sounds in the ears.

There are three main types of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss. It is permanent and caused by many different conditions that damage tiny hair-like cells in the inner ear or the auditory nerve. The auditory nerve carries important information about the loudness, pitch and meaning of sounds to the brain. Most adults with hearing loss have a sensorineural loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss can often result in difficulty understanding sound or speech even though it is loud enough to hear.

Conductive hearing loss is caused by a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear or an obstruction in the ear canal, such as earwax that blocks sound from getting to the eardrum. It can be permanent, but more often it is temporary and can be medically treated.

Mixed hearing loss is when a person has both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.

There are many causes of hearing loss, and it’s important to figure out what is causing the hearing loss to determine the right treatment. Any of the following scenarios increase your risk of developing gradual hearing loss:

— Being over 60 years old, when age-related hearing loss is more likely to occur.

— Frequent exposure to excessive noise, such as from loud machinery or gunfire.

— Having a close family relative with hearing loss, or a family history of genetic disorders with hearing loss

The more of these risk factors you have, the more likely you will experience hearing loss.

Hearing loss is usually gradual. These are the most common risk factors, but there are some surprising risk factors, too.

Though less frequent, hearing loss also can be caused by any of the following conditions:

— Certain medications, sometimes called “ototoxic” drugs.

— Trauma or injury to the head.

— Certain illnesses such as Meniere’s disease, otosclerosis or autoimmune disease, and a acoustic neuroma (a benign tumor that develops on the balance (vestibular) and hearing, or auditory (cochlear) nerves leading from your inner ear to the brain).

If you suspect you have hearing loss, it is important to immediately seek the advice of a qualified hearing health care professional, such as an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. Hearing tests are simple, painless, and widely available. Your hearing health professional will begin by conducting a thorough history, and they will ask questions about the challenges you are having, your lifestyle and your communication needs before administering a test of sounds through voice pronunciations and a machine called an audiometer.

Statistics and definitions used by permission from Healthyhearing.com.

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Jeffrey L. Bayliff, NBC-HIS, is Owner, Hear the Birds Hearing Aid Center, Lock Haven.

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