The Science Behind Your Hearing Loss

Suffering from hearing loss? Here are the likely reasons why, along with helpful hints on how to cope.

This is Why You’re Suffering Hearing Loss—And What You Can Do About It

All sounds louder than roughly 85 decibels—from lawnmowers to heavy traffic to blaring music—are a threat to your hearing, especially if your expos­ure is long or repeated. That’s because they can injure or kill hair cells in your inner ear that are involved in sending sound signals to your brain.

The louder the noise, the less time you can be near to its source before it causes damage. Since most of us don’t carry decibel meters around, you can rely instead on this rule of thumb: if you are required to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing an arm’s length away then there’s potential for harm. Ideally, either reduce the noise, leave for a quieter environment or wear protection such as earplugs or safety earmuffs.

Listening to music through earphones is a common cause of hearing loss. Many smart phones and personal players can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Some will warn you when you exceed safe levels. If yours doesn’t, keep it set to less than the maximum volume.

Deafening noise isn’t to blame for all hearing loss, though. Occasionally, the root of the problem is an underlying condition such as a ruptured eardrum. In addition, the inner ear can also simply deterior­ate as you get older, and unfortunately, there’s no real way to prevent this.

If you suspect you’ve lost some hearing, see a GP or audiologist. A hearing aid could improve your abilities noticeably, particularly when it’s a question of picking up people’s speech. (Can you pass this online hearing test?)

The technology itself “can take a while to get used to, because your brain needs to readjust,” says Dr. Gemma Twitchen, senior audiologist for Action on Hearing Loss, a British charitable organization based in London. “Research shows this is much easier if you take action on getting your hearing assessed early on, when you first notice it reducing.” Hearing aids are improving in terms of comfort, sound quality and appearance—there are now tiny, barely noticeable models available.

Another possible consequence of noise exposure or aging is tinnitus. This phantom ringing, buzzing, hissing or roaring is often caused by the brain compensating for missing sound input or by damaged ear hair cells sending random signals to it. Tinnitus may go away, but some people deal with it constantly or intermittently for life. Although the condition affects each sufferer differently, sleep loss, irrit­ability, stress and trouble concentrating are among the potential repercussions.

If your tinnitus comes with hearing loss—and they do often show up together—then a hearing aid could ease it by giving your brain external sounds to focus on. Other potentially helpful devices include sound generators that emit gentle white noise that suppresses the tinnitus.

Though there’s no way to fully cure age- or noise-related hearing loss or tinnitus, studies show that addressing these conditions prevents problems like social isolation, depression or dementia from developing, most likely by improving your mood, independence and ability to interact with others. 

Make sure you’re not damaging your hearing by cleaning your ears the wrong way.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada