Diseases & Conditions

Age-Related Hearing Loss


Overview & Description

Age-related hearing loss is a hearing impairment that occurs gradually as a person ages. Most experts believe it is caused by a decline in nerve function as the individual ages.

What is the information for this topic?

The cochlea is a snail-shell-shaped structure within the ear. It generates the first electrical impulse for hearing. With aging, there is often a loss of cells that pick up the tones, particularly in the high-frequency portion of the cochlea. As these cells are damaged, they lose their ability to transmit sound in the form of pitches. This causes a high-frequency hearing loss. Someone with this type of hearing loss has trouble deciphering higher-frequency sounds. These include the consonants f, s, t, p, k, and ch.

Age-related hearing loss is usually so gradual that a person may not know that it has happened. Some signs are:

  • if another person complains that the older person cannot hear him or her speaking
  • if the older person finds it hard to hear conversation when there is background noise
  • if the older person has frequent ringing in the ears
  • if the older person turns up the volume on the television and it is too loud for others
  • Someone with ringing in the ears may also have changes in his or her equilibrium, or balance. The person may experience dizziness and feel "off balance." The person is at risk for falls and injuries.

    The main cause of age-related hearing loss is thought to be an accumulation of noise trauma over time. People who have noisy jobs or hobbies are at greater risk. The degree of hearing loss varies from person to person. There also are families who have inherited deafness that begins in middle age. This suggests that genetics plays a role in some cases of hearing loss.

    Other causes of hearing loss may include:

  • allergies
  • buildup of wax in the ear
  • low blood pressure or high blood pressure
  • otitis, or ear infections
  • thyroid disorders
  • use of certain antibiotics, aspirin, and diuretics, or "water pills"
  • A person's genetic makeup cannot be changed. But it is important to limit the amount of noise that enters the inner ear. Some helpful measures include:

  • maintaining a normal volume for music and other forms of entertainment
  • wearing foam earplugs or earmuffs when mowing the lawn or using power equipment
  • wearing protective earplugs in noisy environments
  • People with age-related hearing loss often suffer from social isolation. Hearing loss can aggravate some forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer disease.

    Hearing loss is diagnosed with a hearing test, or audiogram. This test can determine whether the hearing loss is due to nerve dysfunction or changes within the ear. Hearing tests also can tell a healthcare provider how much hearing loss has occurred and what type of hearing aid may be beneficial. Unfortunately, there are no medical treatments for age-related hearing loss. Hearing aids are the mainstay of treatment. And regular hearing tests may be needed if the hearing loss progresses.


    Attribution

    Author:Mark Loury, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
    Edit Date:09/28/01
    Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:09/24/01