One of the most common conditions affecting older adults is hearing loss. Approximately 36 million, or 76 percent of American adults report that they have some sort of hearing loss. Almost one-third of Americans aged 65 to 74, and approximately 47 percent of those 75 and older have hearing loss.
People experiencing hearing loss may have difficulty communicating with family and friends, hearing what their doctor is telling them, and hearing doorbells, alarms, the telephone or warnings.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), men are more likely to experience hearing loss than women.
Hearing loss comes in many forms. It can range from a mild loss in which a person misses certain high-pitched sounds, such as the voices of women and children, to a total hearing loss.
It can be hereditary or it can result from disease, trauma, certain medications, or long-term exposure to loud noises.
There are two general categories of hearing loss – sensorineural hearing loss, which is permanent and occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or the auditory nerve, and conductive hearing loss, which occurs when sound waves cannot reach the inner ear.
The cause of conductive hearing loss may be earwax buildup, fluid, or a punctured eardrum. Medical or surgical treatment can usually restore conductive hearing loss, states the NIH.
One form of hearing loss, presbycusis, comes on gradually as a person ages. Presbycusis can occur because of changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve, middle ear or outer ear.
Some of its causes are aging, loud noise, heredity, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs, and circulation problems such as high blood pressure.
Presbycusis commonly affects people over 50 years old, many of whom are likely to lose some hearing each year. Having presbycusis may make it hard for a person to tolerate loud sounds or to hear what others are saying.
Tinnitus, also common in older people, is the ringing, hissing, or roaring sounds in the ears frequently caused by exposure to loud noise or certain medications.
Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease, so it can accompany any type of hearing loss. It can also be a sign of other important health problems, such as allergies and problems in the heart and blood vessels. Tinnitus can come and go, or it can persist or stop altogether.
Some people may not want to admit they have trouble hearing. Older people who can’t hear well may become depressed or withdraw from others to avoid feeling frustrated or embarrassed about not understanding what is being said.
Sometimes older people are mistakenly thought to be confused, unresponsive, or uncooperative just because they don’t hear well.
Hearing problems that are ignored or untreated can get worse. If you have a hearing problem, you can get help, and are encouraged to see your doctor. Hearing aids, special training, certain medications, and surgery are some of the choices that can help people with hearing problems.
If you think that you have a hearing problem, NIH advises that you schedule an appointment with your doctor. In some cases, he or she can identify the problem and prescribe treatment, according to the NIH.
Your doctor may also refer you to an otolaryngologist. This doctor and surgeon has special training in problems of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck. Your doctor may also recommend that you visit an audiologist.
An audiologist is a health professional who can identify and measure hearing loss. The audiologist will use a device called an audiometer to test your ability to hear sounds of different pitch and loudness. If you need a hearing aid, an audiologist can help you choose the right one.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or sudden deafness, is a rapid loss of hearing. It can happen to a person all at once or over a period of up to three days, and it should be considered a medical emergency. If you or someone you know experiences sudden sensorineural hearing loss, you should visit a doctor immediately.