Senior man cupping his ear having difficulty hearingBy Joan McKechnie

Hearing impairment that is caused by the natural process of aging is called age related hearing loss. Of the various types of hearing loss, age related is the most common type, affecting people from all walks of life. Although symptoms in a mild manner are observed from the age of 40, they are most present when an individual exceeds the age of 65. According to Kochkin’s 2008 survey (MarkeTrak VIII) 35 million Americans are thought to present the symptoms of impaired hearing and the number is projected to increase to 40 million by 2025. Of these 35 million Americans, the biggest group are the over 65s and figures estimate that 80% of the over 70s are hearing impaired to a degree.


Loss of hearing will affect individuals to a varied degree and in certain cases, simple lifestyle and attitude changes will suffice to overcome the loss of hearing. In most cases, however, individuals should actively seek the intervention of the medical community to avoid reduced quality of life. Left unmanaged, hearing loss can have severe repercussions on an individual’s personal life caused by lack of socialising, in their career progress due to reduced productivity and ultimately on their health due to the potentially higher risk of developing dementia.


Our ability to hear is aided by tiny hair like cells within the inner ear that are tasked with the crucial role of picking up sound. Sound is really waves and vibrations in the air over a wide spectrum of frequencies and to capture sound, the inner ear uses thousands of these tiny hair cells. From point of capture, the information is passed to the brain by the hearing nerve and it is within the brain where the information is interrupted into meaningful information individuals can recognise. As the body matures, the number of hair cells is reduced through cellular death and degeneration and the effectiveness of the remaining cells deteriorates. As the body is unable to grow new hair cells to replace the old ones, a significant inability to capture certain sounds develops.


Age related hearing loss is incredibly gradual as the more of the inner ear hair cells die or become damaged, the more conspicuous symptoms become. The most common symptoms include:


  • Difficulty hearing people around you
  • Frequently asking people to repeat themselves
  • Frustration at not being able to hear
  • Certain sounds seeming overly loud
  • Problems hearing in noisy areas
  • Problems telling apart certain sounds such as “s” or “th”
  • More difficulty understanding people with higher-pitched voices
  • Ringing in the ears


In a simplistic manner, if the body was forced or tricked into growing new inner ear hair cells, it would potentially ‘cure’ this type of hearing loss. In the animal kingdom certain species such as birds are able to perform this precise type of natural healing. This finding has led the way to a number of high profile studies into the possibility of using stem cells to regenerate the inner ear hair cells.


To date, the medical community is aided by technological devices that amplify sound thereby overcoming the workings of the inner ear hair cells. The most common are hearing aids, a group of tiny devices that sit inside or just outside the wearer’s ear, picking up and amplifying sounds in most daily situations. Further solutions work on the basis of overcoming specific challenges such as being altered to a phone call using amplified phones, being altered to someone at the door using flashing and amplified doorbells and even ensuring you wake up on time using a vibrating or loud alarm clock. In a vast number of cases, the solution is in fact using a combination of aids at the appropriate time.


If you are concerned about your own hearing or you care for someone who you suspect is suffering from hearing impairment, a simple hearing test performed at your local hearing center will help. The test is quick and often free. It will gauge the precise level and type of any hearing loss, the type and the audiologist will be able to recommend the best manner to manage any hearing impairment discovered.


Further information is also found on the Hearing Loss Association of America site.


Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for UK based Hearing Direct. An online superstore for the hard of hearing featuring daily aids from amplified telephones to TV hearing aids.

Image credit: Deposit Photos


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