An inside look at age-related hearing loss

The loud music, front row tickets, and your favorite band blasting can bring back great memories of your younger years. You may not regret going to that concert 20 years ago, but it may have contributed to age-related hearing loss.

Age-related hearing loss, or presbyacusis,  can start as early as 45. The older you are, the more likely it is that you will experience some type of hearing loss. In fact, age-related hearing loss is affecting 17 percent of our adult population, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

The common explanation that your hearing gets worse is due to the tiny hair fibers in your ear. These tiny hairs pick up sound waves and send them to your brain to interpret sound. Going to rock concerts, operating loud machinery, or spending time with excessive noise can damage these hairs. Unfortunately, these hairs don’t regrow, so the damage is permanent.

Not all hearing loss is due to damaged hair fibers. Some people suffer from a deformed ear, or have an infection or tumor in their ear that is causing trouble. These can be evaluated and treated and your hearing can improve. This is known as reversible hearing loss.

You Are Not Alone

Dr. Thomas Brammeier, the Director of the Scott & White Hearing and Balance Center, can relate to his patients on a personal level. Dr. Brammeier started wearing hearing aids during his medical school training and became passionate about improving people’s hearing.

He visits daily with patients and asks them questions such as, “Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy environment?” When the patients explain their difficulty understanding, he knows how they feel.

“I think I’m able to identify a lot with my patients,” says Dr. Brammeier. “I go through situational questions, and I think they’re surprised when I can relate to them about their hearing loss.”

Some of the symptoms Dr. Brammerier discusses with patients include:

  • Certain sounds seem too loud or distorted
  • Difficulty following conversations when two or more people are talking
  • Difficulty hearing in noisy areas
  • Hard to tell high-pitched sounds (such as “s” or “th”) from one another
  • Less trouble hearing men’s voices than women’s voices
  • Problems hearing when there is background noise
  • Voices that sound mumbled or slurred

“Living with hearing loss is difficult.  Patients must use the extra energy to understand the world around them. Feelings of inadequate and incompetent are common,” says Dr. Brammerier. “We don’t have signs to tell people we have a hearing impairment. If you’re not wearing hearing aids they don’t know, or if you do, they may not notice.”

Help With Your Hearing

Dr. Brammeier says that most people do not think they have a hearing impairment. He jokes and says the wife will usually bring in her husband, hoping he will agree to a full audiogram to test tones, speech discrimination and other elements of hearing.

Family members often noticed the hearing loss because the TV is loud, or not responding to questions or participating in conversations.  The patient with the hearing loss will experience impatience of family members trying to communicate with them.

Unfortunately the NIDCD states only 20% of those individuals who might benefit from treatment actually seek help.

Whether you think you have hearing loss or not, it is valuable to get evaluated. You can find a hearing test self-assessment from the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery that may help you see if you need to be evaluated.

Hearing Frequencies

Dr. Brammeier explains the ranges of hearing, and when it is important to get help with your hearing.

He says hearing frequency (or pitch) is measured in Hertz (Hz). The human ear ranges from 125 Hz and goes up to 20,00 Hz. However the range for human speech is between 500 and 4,000 Hz. If you have an audiogram, and have a loss within that range, Dr. Brammeier suggests getting help.

“These are critical frequencies in order to hear people’s voices and communicate,” he says.

If you are trying to communicate with someone who has a loss of hearing in these frequencies, they may not understand you as well. The ideal setting for conversation is in a well-lit environment and one-on-one so they can clearly focus. Because 1 in 10 adults has a hearing impairment, you may like to read tips on talking to someone with hearing loss.

Not Your Grandparent’s Hearing Aids

If you are experiencing hearing loss, Dr. Brammeier will discuss options for hearing aids or other devices. Texas law allows for a 30-day trial period, which at the end you can evaluate before making an expensive investment. Hearing aids are much more efficient than the amplifiers grandma or grandpa wore 20 years ago, because now they are digital and can pin-point the exact frequency where you lack hearing.

“In recent reports, hearing aid patient reported a 90% satisfaction with hearing aids in improving their hearing and the quality of life,” says Dr. Brammeier. “I often tell patients that when they first get their hearing aids, they will hear things that they have not heard in years.”

About the author

Jill Taylor
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I contribute content and skills as a freelance writer for Baylor Scott & White Health. I enjoy improving our connection with our readers, patients and communities by assisting with a wide range of writing projects.

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An inside look at age-related hearing loss