Hearing loss is quite common and can be caused by many factors, but historically age and noise are generally the two most common causes. The true definition of hearing loss is when your ability to hear speech and other sounds is greatly reduced. Realistically hearing loss cannot be cured but can be successfully treated with hearing aids dispensed from an audiologist.
Hearing loss is separated into categories and levels. These classifications are mild hearing loss, moderate hearing loss and severe hearing loss or profound hearing loss.
If you have mild hearing loss – the quietest sounds you can hear (with your better ear) are anywhere between 25 and 40dB. If you have moderate hearing loss – the quietest sounds will be between 40 and 70 dB. If you have a severe to profound hearing loss this range would be between 70 and 95 (or higher) dB.
To give you an idea of the human hearing range: Humans hear sounds in a frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, however, the upper limit in average adults is often closer to 15–17 kHz.
When you have mild hearing loss, you are unable to distinguish sounds that are quieter than 25 decibels (dB) for adults and 15 decibels for children. Sounds such as whispered conversations, water dripping, the rustling of leaves and birds chirping are some examples of sounds you can lose when you have mild hearing loss.
You may also struggle to hear low pitched and high pitched frequency sounds, however, most people with mild hearing loss lose the ability to hear high pitched sounds first. Although this level of hearing loss' sounds rather tame - it still requires urgent medical assistance, as it can lead to other medical problems if untreated.
Moderate hearing loss is generally when you have issues hearing in many situations and struggle to keep up and understand speech in conversation. This level of hearing loss is usually treated with hearing aids.
Those who suffer from severe hearing loss find it very difficult to hear all frequency sounds and normally have to wear quite powerful hearing aids, as well as lip-reading in conversation. Profound hearing loss also requires powerful hearing aids or implants and the use of lip-reading and sign-language in most hearing situations.
The consequences of hearing loss vary with each individual. However, most people with a hearing impairment can suffer from anxiety, depression, social, psychological, and physical problems due to their hearing loss. It is important to remember that we are generalising here, and this is not the case for everyone with hearing loss. Audiologists, ENT clinics, hearing coaches and hearing organisations are a brilliant source of research, support, advice, treatment and rehabilitation.
We will discuss the reason why early diagnosis of hearing loss is essential further down this article – but if you take the proactive approach to your hearing concerns, you will improve the chance of a successful solution. Hearing loss provides a barrier to communication which is very much needed to feel connected to the world and for essential to the state of our mental health.
Again we are generalising here, but the most common form of treatment is hearing aids, which not only help you to simply hear better - but also to better understand your soundscape and greatly reduce the risks of developing dementia.
Hearing loss is classified as sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss or mixed hearing loss. Here we breakdown each type of hearing loss:
Sensorineural Hearing Loss: This type of hearing loss is due to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear being damaged. Sensorineural hearing loss can be linked to age-related hearing loss (also known as Presbyacausis) and noise-induced hearing loss – caused by long periods of exposure to loud noise.
Conductive Hearing Loss: This type of hearing loss is when the ears’ ability to conduct sound from the outer ear through the middle ear into the inner ear is blocked or reduced.
Mixed Hearing Loss: If there are issues with conducting sound and there is damage to the inner ear hair cells it is called mixed – therefore, this type of hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss.
Bilateral Hearing Loss: A hearing loss in both ears, which sometimes is caused by children with Pendred syndrome - a genetic disease that causes this type of hearing loss.
Unilateral Hearing Loss: Also known as single-sided deafness or hearing loss in one ear.
Asymmetric Hearing Loss: This is when the hearing loss you have in both ears is significantly different.
Find out more about hidden hearing loss here
High Frequency Hearing Loss: This means high-pitched sounds are harder to hear. It can affect anyone of any age - but is high frequency hearing loss is more commonplace in older adults with age-related hearing loss and those who are exposed to loud noises.
Find out more about high frequency hearing loss here
Here are some symptoms of hearing loss and signs of hearing loss to look out for:
If you delay getting a hearing aid, you could be causing more damage to your future hearing health. Over time, without amplification, your perception of sound can change. This is because when you hear a sound your ears have detected a vibration in the air and transmitted it via the inner ear to the auditory nerve. This nerve carries signals to the brain which then processes it into the noise and speech sounds that create the soundscape around you.
In order for the auditory cortex to function it needs to be used. Just like any other muscle in the body. Your brain is no different - if you have hearing loss that is untreated your brain starts to get weak. If you stop using a part of it or signals can no longer reach it, it will send it elsewhere.
Studies show that people who have untreated hearing loss and the hearing nerve and auditory cortex hasn't been used - were unable to process the sound in recognisable words. People with normal hearing have an active brain that can pick out speech sounds from a challenging background noise, distinguish them and understand them. Therefore, early diagnosis of hearing loss is vital.
In a different study, MRI scans of people with severe hearing loss were compared with those of people with normal hearing. These scans showed that the auditory cortex was smaller in participants with hearing loss. This backs up the theory that unused parts of the brain start to shrink or disappear when they are not used. Once brain cells are lost, they are not replaced. Whilst everyone’s brain begins to shrink as they age, the scans of people with normal hearing had a larger auditory cortex. This means that there was no change in their ability to recognise and process sounds.
Perhaps they feel there’s a stigma around wearing hearing aids. They don’t want to be seen as getting old. They don’t realise just how small and discrete modern hearing aids are. But the longer you ignore any hearing problems, the worse your hearing will get.
Hearing aids can keep the hearing nerves and brain stimulated and healthy. This means that even if your hearing does begin to get worse over time, with the right amplification you will still be able to process sounds and conversation. Your hearing aids may not be perfect right away, if you’ve had untreated hearing loss for some time it could take a while for your brain to get used to noise again.
The sooner you get help and advice about your hearing loss, and get hearing aids, the easier it will be to get used to them. Early intervention will also prevent further hearing difficulties by ensuring that the hearing nerves and auditory cortex are used to their full potential.
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