Hearing loss is prevalent throughout all age groups in the United States, with more than 30 million people over the age of 12 displaying signs of hearing loss in both ears. Approximately 2 or 3 out of every 1,000 babies in the US are born with hearing loss present at birth. This type of hearing loss is referred to as congenital hearing loss and is caused by genetic factors in a majority of cases. 

Beyond genetics or other in utero environmental factors, hearing loss can be acquired at nearly any age. 

Hearing loss due to aging

As our awareness of the myriad ways hearing loss affects people throughout the lifespan continues to evolve, we might still most associate hearing loss with older folks. Certainly, seniors have a higher rate of challenged hearing than other demographics. Nearly one third of people over the age of 65 report hearing loss. The more common ways to find hearing loss enter your life as an older adult is through age-related hearing loss or noise-induced hearing loss. 

Age-related hearing loss is the result of the natural aging process that is unfortunately irreversible. We are born with a finite amount of delicate inner ear cells, one of the most important factors in our ability to hear. While the outer ear gets a lot of the credit, the inner ear cells actually receive the sound information captured by the ear. That sound information is then translated to the brain via the auditory nerve. In the brain, the sound signals are translated into comprehension. 

Over time, the delicate inner ear cells can begin to deteriorate. When this happens, less sound information is received and thus, less sound information reaches the brain. We sense this as hearing loss, and it typically begins with losing certain frequencies, usually at the higher end of the spectrum. Sound and speech becomes distorted and we might find ourselves repeatedly asking “what was that?” to our conversation partners.

Hearing loss due to noise

But it isn't only time that can damage our inner ear cells. Noise can be harmful to the extent that frequent exposure damages the cells so that they cannot fully receive sound information. The same process as with age-related hearing loss ensues. As with hearing loss that accompanies aging, noise-induced hearing loss is also permanent.

Noise-induced hearing loss can happen all of a sudden in a violent incident, like an explosion or car accident. It can also happen subtly over time. Prolonged exposure to slightly threatening noise can cause hearing loss just as easily as noise that we can clearly sense is too loud. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classifies noises at or above 85 decibels within an eight hour shift as dangerous. To compare, rock concerts regularly clock in at 120 decibels. Even attending a sports game at a stadium might be cause for concern, with noise levels ranging from 90 to 120 decibels. 

Of course, even if you are in a crowd where the noise levels reach beyond 85 decibels, what matters most is limiting the amount of time your ears are exposed to that volume. It’s easy to be mindful of noisy environments and protect yourself with earplugs or other ear protection, like noise canceling headphones. Take care to watch the volumes on your personal devices and keep that at reasonable levels. 

Other causes of hearing loss

Ear infections

There are less common ways that people acquire hearing loss throughout their lives. Children’s hearing is most often damaged by ear infections. These ailments are ubiquitous in childhood ​​— by the time they are three years old, five out of six children have had an ear infection. However, repeated ear infections or untreated ear infections can have serious implications. Watch for fevers, trouble sleeping and tugging or rubbing at the ears in preverbal children. Older children with capacity for language are more able to clearly let you know if their ears are bothering them, but the symptoms remain similar. If your child exhibits signs of an ear infection, have them treated by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Head injuries

A traumatic brain injury can often lead to communication problems, like difficulty with speech or hearing. These head injuries, ranging in severity from a concussion to a much more violent blow, can physically damage the ear and the brain itself. Remember when we talked about the ways that hearing happens in the brain? After it receives sound information from the ear, the processing centers of the brain take center stage in our communication and hearing efforts. When the brain is damaged, the way we hear is impacted. In many cases, hearing loss related to traumatic brain injury is temporary.

Ototoxic medications

Some medications can be harmful to our hearing, and a number of prescription medications can come with this serious side effect. You may know these as ototoxic medications. While they are regularly prescribed, it is likely they are being used to treat a very serious illness like cancer or heart disease. In these cases, your physician will have weighed the likelihood of hearing loss against successfully treating your condition and the hearing loss often ceases once you no longer take the medication. If you have been prescribed an ototoxic medication, this side effect should have been clearly communicated to you by your physician or pharmacist. 

Rare disease

In rare cases, disease can cause hearing loss. Thankfully, most of these diseases, like meningitis, measles, encephalitis and chicken pox have been virtually eradicated due to the successful development and deployment of vaccinations. 

Schedule a hearing consultation today

Hearing loss doesn’t have to be suffered silently. There are ways to successfully diagnose and treat challenged hearing so that you can continue to live a vibrant and connected life. Our team of hearing health professionals are ready to provide a quick and easy hearing consultation so that we can start you on your journey towards a better listening experience.