How We Hear
To understand hearing loss, you first need to understand how hearing works.
- The way the auditory system works is incredibly complex and requires a number of functions to work properly, including:
- Sound is transmitted through the air as sound waves, which are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the ear canal to the eardrum.
- The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which sets the three tiny bones in the middle ear into motion.
- The motion of the three bones causes the fluid in the inner ear, or cochlea, to move.
- The movement of the fluid in the inner ear causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. The hair cells change the movement into electrical impulses.
- These electrical impulses are transmitted to the auditory nerve and up to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.
Types of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss can be experienced in varying degrees, such as mild, moderate, moderately-severe, severe or profound. This loss can also vary depending on pitches or frequencies.
A series of hearing tests can determine the amount of loss you experience compared to an average of many other adult listeners with typical hearing. These tests can help determine the type of hearing loss you’re experiencing, which can be categorized conductive, sensorineural or mixed.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the way sound is conducted to the inner ear and a structure called the cochlea. The problem may lie in the ear canal, eardrum or the middle ear. The inner ear and auditory nerve remain unaffected in this type of hearing loss.
Symptoms for conductive hearing loss are similar to the other types; however, individuals may complain of sounds being muffled or far too quiet.
Some causes of conductive hearing loss can include:
- Outer or middle ear infections
- Complete earwax blockage
- Deterioration of the middle ear bones (ossicles)
- Otosclerosis, the fixation of the ossicles
- A hole in the eardrum
- Absence of the outer ear or middle ear structures
Conductive hearing loss may be temporary or permanent, depending on the source of the problem. Medical management can correct some cases of conductive hearing loss, while hearing instruments may be a recommended treatment option in long-standing or permanent cases.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the sensory receptors of the hearing system, specifically in the cochlea of the inner ear or auditory nerve. The majority of sensorineural hearing loss occurs as a result of an abnormality or damage to the hair cells in the cochlea. This abnormality prevents sound from being transmitted to the brain normally, which results in a hearing loss.
Individuals with sensorineural hearing loss may hear muffled speech, suffer from tinnitus (or ringing in the ears), have difficulty hearing in background noise or clarity of speech problems.
There are a number of causes of sensorineural hearing loss, including:
- Congenital – the hair cells have been abnormal since birth
- Damage to hair cells – Could have resulted from infection, drugs, trauma or over-exposure to noise (late-onset or acquired)
- Presbycusis – age-related hearing loss
Sensorineural hearing losses are generally permanent and may worsen over time. Routine hearing tests are needed to monitor the hearing loss. Hearing aids are the most common and successful treatment, allowing hearing professionals to adjust settings as needs change.
Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss occurs when a person has a sensorineural hearing loss in combination with a conductive hearing loss. This means there is a problem in the inner ear as well as in the outer and/or middle ear.
Impacts of Untreated Hearing Loss
Many people are aware they’re suffering from hearing loss but find it difficult to get help. Those who have been diagnosed with hearing loss wait, on average, seven years before seeking treatment. The reasons for waiting on help vary. Some are frustrated by hearing loss, believing it to be a sign of aging. Others think their condition isn’t that severe or may not even realize they have hearing problems.
Unfortunately, allowing hearing loss to remain untreated can lead to some serious consequences. The most recent studies highlight the social, psychological, cognitive and health effects of untreated hearing loss. Those with hearing loss are three times more likely to fall and five times more likely to develop dementia than those without hearing loss.
These effects can vary, but all have serious impacts on your quality of life.
- Studies have linked untreated hearing loss to a number of emotional health conditions, including:
- Irritability, negativism and anger
- Fatigue, tension, stress and depression
- Avoidance or withdrawal from social situations
- Social rejection and loneliness
- Reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety
When you have hearing loss, you may experience difficulty following conversations in a group setting. Due to this problem, you’re more likely to socially withdraw, which, over time, leads to depression and anxiety. The prospect of being immersed in a work meeting or large gathering, where numerous conversations will occur, can leave you feeling anxious.
In addition to the impacts on your emotional wellbeing, untreated hearing loss can also affect your cognitive health. When your ability to hear declines, your brain receives less stimulation than it typically would, because it’s not working to identify different sounds and nuances. Over time, this lack of exercise for your brain can lead to memory loss or even dementia.
Think of your brain in the same way you think of your body. If you work out the different muscle groups of your body, you remain healthy overall. If you instead only focused on one specific area, the other parts of your body become weaker. This is how untreated hearing loss impacts your brain. The portion of your brain responsible for transmitting sound becomes weaker, making memory loss more likely.
Benefits of Wearing a Hearing Aid
Treating your hearing loss is the first step toward a healthier, happier life. Wearing a hearing aid can enrich your life and reopen many doors that may have closed for you over the years.
Other benefits of treating your hearing loss with hearing aids include:
- Hearing your grandchild’s first words
- Hearing nature again
- Feeling safer in cities
- Attending dinners in noisy environments
- Enjoying parties and understanding conversation
How to Get Help
Hearing loss isn’t age-specific. It can affect everyone, from babies to adults and seniors.
The best way to know how to get help is to visit an audiologist. After determining the type and degree of hearing loss you have, you can find a solution to begin to live a happier, more fulfilled life.
If you think you or a loved one suffers from hearing loss, don’t delay another day. Make an appointment at The Speech & Hearing Center, and take the first step toward a world of better hearing.