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Now hear this: understanding elderly hearing problems

by Sue Lanza

Hearing problems can present at any age yet studies suggest that over 40% adults older than 65 years of age experience some form of age-related hearing loss. With potential impacts in safety awareness and declines in enjoyment of life activities, it is no wonder that hearing loss is ranked as one of the most frequently seen health issues of older persons. Let's review some of the commonly noted hearing problems and how they may be handled.

What is Hearing Loss?

A disability or impairment in the sensory function of the auditory system is the definition of hearing loss. The degree of loss can be assessed as mild, such as trouble understanding your grandchildren talking, moderate, such as needing sounds such as the television to be raised for you to hear, or severe, such as only very amplified or shouting voices can be heard. Hearing loss is measured in decibels with difficulty hearing higher pitched voices and tones seen as the first areas to be lost.

Types and Causes of Hearing Loss

If you are starting to have some of the typical symptoms of hearing impairments such as struggling to understand conversations or sorting out background noise, you should see a health care professional or physician for an evaluation. During an extensive history and physical examination, the doctor will try to determine the type and causes of your hearing issues by inquiring about whether your symptoms were sudden or gradual, and if pain is present or not.

Hearing loss can be broken into two major categories: conductive or sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss has to do with problems of transmitting sounds within the ear. Simple examples of possible causes of conductive hearing impairment would be ear infections, wax build-up or tumors. On the other hand, sensorineural hearing deficits are a result of poor sound reception and can be congenital, generated by trauma, an aftereffect of an auto-immune disease or even from over exposure to loud noise. One common example of a sensorineural hearing loss is called presbycusis. Presbycusis is a deterioration of hearing in the elderly caused by lifelong exposure to loud noise.

A familiar hearing complaint that goes hand in hand with presbycusis is called tinnitus. A temporary or permanent ringing in the ears that may include dizziness defines tinnitus. When coupled with the hearing loss of presbycusis, tinnitus symptoms can negatively impact your quality of life.

Another inner ear syndrome that presents some troubling symptoms and causes hearing loss is called Meniere's Disease. Caused by a fluctuation in fluid within a part of the inner ear, individuals suffering from Meniere's Disease often experience dizziness and vertigo that can lead to nausea and vomiting. Having no cure, Meniere's Disease can incapacitate a person because of the serious nature of the symptoms and the sudden way they appear.

Solutions for Hearing Loss

In addition to an examination by a qualified professional, these could be other recommendations for handling hearing loss:

  • Eliminate ear canal obstructions such as wax accumulation
  • Treat any correctable medical issues
  • Utilize hearing aids or other amplification devices if recommended. (As a point of reference, about 14% of the elderly use hearing aids)
  • Alert others to your hearing difficulties so adjustments can be made

When hearing deficits are the most severe, special implants in the cochlea part of the ear may be advised.

Whether you experience an intermittent ringing in your ears, or hearing damage from a lifetime of environmental noise exposure, take the time to care for your precious auditory system. Sound good?