If you’ve begun to notice people mumble when they talk, the sound of clanking dishes is especially annoying, and you no longer hear the high-pitched sounds of audio greeting cards, you may have the early stages of presbycusis. Known colloquially as “age-related hearing loss,” presbycusis is so common most people think it’s an unavoidable part of aging. It’s easy to see why people expect either they or someone they love will lose partial hearing at some point in the aging process. All told, age-related hearing loss affects about 30% of adults between the ages of 65-75, and about half of the population over 75.
Someone suffering hearing loss will feel increased frustration because it becomes difficult to distinguish words. Voices become muddled and unclear, making conversation more difficult. Sometimes a person suffering from presbycusis loses her ability to hear certain tones, such as high pitches. Others are heard but indistinguishable, such as a woman’s voice. Some sufferers may find background noise more distracting, making it difficult to listen to a person talking. Also, certain sounds may sound unnecessarily loud or annoying.
Our brain receives sound through hair cells in our ear. The cells pick up the sound waves and translate them into nerve signals the brain recognizes. As we age, these hair cells can become damaged, reducing or obstructing their ability to transmit sound to the brain. The damage could be the result of the natural aging process or from trauma, such as being exposed to loud noises for extended periods of time. Other factors, including our genes, illness, or even medications, can put a person at a higher risk to develop presbycusis.
While loss of hearing isn’t something you can prevent, it is something you should address and manage as soon as you are aware you are missing sounds or conversations. Loss of hearing isn’t dangerous; that is, left untreated, it will not develop into larger physical problems. However, loneliness and isolation often become a problem since the person suffering begins to feel left out and overlooked. Many people realize their hearing is going and prefer to remain silent rather than ask friends to repeat themselves. This prevents them from fully engaging in the conversation, which begins to close out the world around them. Don’t let embarrassment prevent you from getting the help you need.
While nothing can restore hearing loss, sufferers of presbycusis can experience drastic improvement in how much they hear by being fitted for a hearing aid. Options are available that make it nearly impossible to notice fitted aids. A doctor should give you a hearing test, along with a consultation that would include questions about what you hope the hearing aid can accomplish. (Do you need it to hear the TV, or do you need it to hear certain pitches, such as a quiet voice, bells, or music?) A variety of different styles exist, as well as different technologies, so be sure to have a lengthy discussion with your doctor about your expectations. Consult with an audiologist, rather than only a licensed hearing instrument specialist, before you decide which hearing aid would work best for you.
Will presbycusis always be a problem? We don’t know the answer to that, but we can tell you doctors are working on ways to restore the sensory hair cells that are lost with age. Studies suggest raising certain protein levels could minimize hearing loss.
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