Losing your hearing due to aging is a natural process, however at what age is hearing loss normal? According to the World Health Organization (2020), about one-third of people over 65 years of age experience age-related hearing loss. Your ability to hear may start to deteriorate from your 40s onward and is usually a gradual process. Because it is a gradual process people often don’t pick up that they have developed a hearing difficulty until a few years later. As reported by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 2 percent of adults between the ages of 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. The rate then increases to 8.5 percent for adults between the ages of 55 to 64; 25 percent for those between the ages of 65 to 74; and 50 percent for those who are 75 and older.
While age is considered to be the strongest predictor of hearing loss, it is not the only cause. A hearing loss occurs if any of the structures along the hearing pathway are not functioning optimally. The ear consists of three parts i.e., the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Sound waves travel from the outer ear (pinna), through the ear canal to the eardrum, which then begins to vibrate. The vibrations of the eardrum are transmitted through the middle ear, consisting of three tiny bones (ossicles). These tiny bones then stimulate the hearing organ (cochlear) in the inner ear which converts the signal into nerve impulses. These impulses are transmitted through the auditory nerve to the brain where we perceive it as sound. A hearing loss can occur gradually or without warning. Depending on the cause, some hearing losses may be treated and reversed. However, a hearing loss may also be permanent.
So when and how can my hearing be affected?
A person can be affected by hearing loss at any stage of their life. Some people may be born with a hearing loss and others may acquire it due to illnesses, medications, or even through head injuries. However, recent statistics have reported a higher incidence of hearing loss amongst children, teens, and young adults today than ever before. Additionally, the prevalence of hearing loss amongst these age groups seems to be rising. The WHO (2020) estimated that approximately 1.1 billion young people between the ages of 12–35 years are at risk of developing hearing loss.
The reason for the increase in hearing loss amongst these age groups may be due to our change in lifestyle. We are exposed to a range of high noise levels in our daily lives which is known to cause permanent damage to one’s hearing ability. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), 12.5 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss as a result of listening to loud music, particularly through earbuds at unsafe volumes. Another study reported that approximately 37.5 million Americans aged 18 and over have reported difficulty hearing. Other than the use of earphones and earbuds, attending loud concerts, bars, or clubs with high levels of music, shooting ranges or even the use of power tools or lawnmowers can affect one’s hearing.
How can I protect my hearing?
- Prevention is best! Identify sources of potentially harmful sound sources and limit your exposure to them if possible.
- If possible, opt to use headphones instead of earbuds. Also, ensure that you are using high-quality headphones/earbuds.
- Don’t use headphones or earbuds at maximum volume levels. Try to follow the 60/60 rule – that is to keep the volume level at a maximum of 60 percent for 60 minutes at a time. Taking breaks when using headphones or earplugs is important. Most devices can be set to warn or prevent you from turning up the volume too loud.
- Remember that if the person next to you can hear what you are listening to, your device is turned up too loud.
- Ensure that you always use hearing protection when in noisy environments such as concerts, sports events, and even when exposed to high noises from machinery.
- Special custom musicians and high-decibel earplugs can be worn when attending concerts. These filter noise while still allowing one to hear the music clearly.
- Regular hearing assessments are important. This is important as we age, and equally as important if you are exposed to other risk factors for hearing loss. Annual hearing screenings are recommended if you have any risk factors or are aged 50 years or older.
How do I know if I have a hearing loss?
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it may be a good idea to have your ears tested. Lexie Hearing offers a free online hearing test that you can try, or your hearing health care professional can also guide you if necessary:
- Speech sounds unclear or muffled.
- Difficulty hearing soft pitched sounds. This includes consonants like “j”, “u” and “z”
- Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds. This includes consonants like “f”, “s”, “sh” and “th”. Children’s and women’s voices may also be difficult to hear.
- Communicating with others in busy, noisy environments is challenging.
- Frequently need to ask others to repeat themselves or speak louder
- Difficulty hearing over the phone.
- Family members often complain that the television is turned up too loud.
- Unwillingness to engage in conversations or attend social gatherings.
- Experiencing a ringing, roaring, or hissing sound in the ear that only you can hear. This is referred to as tinnitus.