Gradual deterioration of the ear means that for most people, deafness is an unwelcome feature of later life.
Although the degree of disability varies greatly, and some people adjust quite well to the slow decline in their hearing, for many this form of hearing loss, known as presbyacusis, causes frustration, loneliness and depression.
Sound reaches our ears as vibrations which are channelled along the ear canal to the eardrum. When the eardrum vibrates, it causes the three little bones of the middle ear to rock back and forth and they in turn pass the vibrations into the inner ear (or cochlea) where they are detected by special cells known as sensory ‘hair’ cells. Hairs on the tips of these cells detect the vibrations, enabling the cells to transmit signals to the brain.
As we grow older, hair cells will naturally die off, coinciding with a deterioration in our hearing. However, exposure to excessive noise can distort and damage hair cells, making them unable to transmit incoming sound to the brain and resulting in permanent hearing impairment.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Noise damage to hearing can be divided into two types: gradual and increasing loss of hearing, and the more extreme acoustic trauma.
Gradual and increasing loss of hearing comes from repeated exposure to loud noise, which can be with us throughout the day: a screeching train, a noisy office, listening to an MP3 player or frequently going to loud music gigs, nightclubs or pubs. At first, any hearing loss is temporary (a ‘temporary threshold shift’ of hearing). However, if the exposure continues or the ear is not given enough time to recover, the hearing loss becomes permanent and irreversible.
Acoustic trauma is an immediate loss of hearing after a sudden, exceptionally loud noise, such as an explosion.
Over the past ten years, scientists have made a lot of progress in understanding the exact process by which noise-induced hearing loss occurs. Very loud noises are thought to over-stimulate the sensory hair cells leading to the over-production of potentially damaging chemicals called free radicals. While cells can normally cope with a low level of free radicals, too high a level will damage the structure of the cell and eventually lead to its death. Exceptionally loud noise will burst the ear drum and cause extensive damage to the inner-ear.
CLICK HERE for 10 tips to protecting your hearing.
How does noise damage hearing?
Repeated exposure to excessive noise can kill hair cells and damage the hearing nerve making them unable to work properly, resulting in a permanent hearing loss. This is called a ‘sensorineural’ hearing loss.
Someone with noise-induced hearing loss will first experience a difficulty hearing the high-pitched sounds that are important in being able to hear people talk. So although some sounds will remain reasonably clear – like people’s actual voices – the words they are saying will be distorted. For example, you may be watching a TV programme and be able to hear that the characters are talking, but what they are saying will be hard to understand. Naturally, this makes trying to understand a single person speaking in a noisy environment or among a babble of other voices very difficult and frustrating.
However, it is possible to recognise signs of hearing damage quite early. If you have difficulty hearing people, or you suffer tinnitus (noises in the ear or head) on leaving a noisy environment, your hearing may well be damaged. Repeated exposure to noise at a high level can leave you with a permanent hearing loss or tinnitus.
If you do suspect your hearing is damaged, make an appointment to see your GP immediately. Usually, s/he will refer you to an audiologist or ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist who will carry out tests.
If you’re concerned that you may be losing your hearing, tackling the problem early can improve both your hearing and your quality of life.
Hearing loss and relationships
Delaying diagnosis can also damage your relationships with family and friends. An Action on Hearing Loss survey of couples where one partner had hearing loss found that hearing problems can be very frustrating for partners. In some cases, hearing loss results in couples talking at cross-purposes. This causes friction which can develop into ongoing resentment.
Partners of people with hearing loss also commonly complain of loneliness, feeling isolated, missing out on companionship and a poor social life because previous social activities are curtailed.
But ignoring the problem of hearing loss won’t make it go away. And you could be missing out on devices that could help you hear better and improve you and your partner’s quality of life.
If you’re suitable for a hearing aid, the sooner you start using one, the better it’s likely to work. You benefit more from being fitted with a hearing aid while your hearing loss is relatively mild.
Reasons to confront hearing loss
If your hearing seems to be declining, here are four good reasons to acknowledge that there may be a problem and to seek help:
- There is a huge amount of hearing loss help available, including digital hearing aids, which are much smaller and easier to control than previous versions. There are also gadgets to make your life easier, including extra-loud landlines and mobile phones, amplifiers and flashing doorbells, sonic boom and vibrating alarm clocks, and vibrating watches.
- It’s better to start wearing hearing aids sooner rather than later. This is because getting used to amplified sound is harder if you’ve already got used to a quieter world, which means your hearing aid will be less effective.
- You’ll have a better relationship with family and friends. An Action on Hearing Loss report found that early use of hearing aids by people with hearing loss improved their relationships with loved ones.
- You’re not alone. One person in seven in the UK is deaf or has hearing loss. That’s an estimated 9 million people in the UK. So, if you think you’re losing your hearing, take a free hearing test. Your GP can then refer you, if necessary, for further tests and advice.