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How We Hear

The process of hearing involves a complicated pathway, leading the brain to recognize and process sound. Hearing loss misleads our brain and distorts messages, making it difficult to cope with hearing loss.

Consequences of Hearing Loss

Many people are aware that their hearing has deteriorated but are reluctant to seek help. Perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge the problem, are embarrassed by what they see as a weakness, or believe that they can “get by” without using a hearing aid. And, unfortunately, too many wait years, even decades, before getting treatment.

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But time and again, research demonstrates the considerable negative social, psychological, cognitive and health effects of untreated hearing loss . . . with far-reaching implications that go well beyond hearing alone. In fact, those who have difficulty hearing can experience such distorted and incomplete communication that it seriously impacts their professional and personal lives, at times leading to isolation and withdrawal.

Studies have linked untreated hearing loss to:

  • 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
  • impaired memory and ability to learn new tasks
  • reduced job performance and earning power
  • diminished psychological and overall health

Hearing loss is not just an ailment of old age. It can strike at any time and any age, even childhood. For the young, even a mild or moderate case of hearing loss could bring difficulty learning, developing speech and building the important interpersonal skills necessary to foster self-esteem and succeed in school and life.

Prevalence of Hearing Loss

Common myth dictates that those with hearing loss are elderly. However, people of all ages suffer from loss of hearing.

Here are some general guidelines regarding the incidence of hearing loss:

  • 3 in 10 people over age 60 have hearing loss;
  • 1 in 6 baby boomers (ages 41-59), or 14.6%, have a hearing problem;
  • 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4%, already have hearing loss;
  • At least 1.4 million children (18 or younger) have hearing problems;
  • It is estimated that 3 in 1,000 infants are born with serious to profound hearing loss.

Signs of Hearing Loss

Social Signs of Hearing Loss

  • require frequent repetition.
  • have difficulty following conversations involving more than 2 people.
  • think that other people sound muffled or like they’re mumbling.
  • have difficulty hearing in noisy situations, like conferences, restaurants, malls, or crowded meeting rooms.
  • have trouble hearing children and women.
  • have your TV or radio turned up to a high volume.
  • answer or respond inappropriately in conversations.
  • have ringing in your ears.
  • read lips or more intently watch people’s faces when they speak with you.

Emotional Signs of Hearing Loss

  • feel stressed out from straining to hear what others are saying.
  • feel annoyed at other people because you can’t hear or understand them.
  • feel embarrassed to meet new people or from misunderstanding what others are saying.
  • feel nervous about trying to hear and understand.
  • withdraw from social situations that you once enjoyed because of difficulty hearing.

Medical Signs of Hearing Loss

  • have a family history of hearing loss.
  • take medications that can harm the hearing system (ototoxic drugs).
  • have diabetes, heart, circulation or thyroid problems.
  • have been exposed to very loud sounds over a long period or single exposure to explosive noise.

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Types of Hearing Loss

There are two main types of hearing loss, conductive and sensorineural. A combination of both is considered mixed hearing loss. Treatment options and the impact of such treatments vary for the different types of hearing loss. Unilateral hearing loss is a type of hearing impairment that affects one ear; bilateral hearing loss affects both.

Causes of Hearing Loss

Causes of hearing loss are diverse and their impact on hearing is variable. Causes can be further broken down by the type of hearing loss, either sensorineural or conductive.

The Main Causes of Hearing Loss

  • Excessive noise (i.e. construction, rock music, gun shot, etc)
  • Aging (presbycusis)
  • Infections (otitis media)
  • Injury to the head or ear
  • Birth defects or genetics
  • Ototoxic reaction to drugs or cancer treatment

Causes of Hearing Loss – Conductive:

External Ear

  • congenital malformation where pinna and ear canal fail to form
  • blockage in ear canal – foreign body or accumulated cerumen (ear wax)

Middle ear

  • perforation in tympanic membrane (ear drum) from trauma or disease
  • otitis media (ear infection)
  • broken ossicular chain due to head trauma or trauma to the ear

Causes of Hearing Loss – Sensorineural:

Sensory

  • neonatal risk indicators
  • genetic disorders causing non-syndromic sensorineural hearing loss
  • presbycusis – hearing loss from aging
  • ototoxic drugs such as some antibiotics
  • cancer treatments – chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • head trauma – fractured temporal bone
  • excessive noise expose
  • diseases of the vascular system such as sickle cell anemia
  • kidney disease
  • Meniere’s syndrome
  • acquired infections such as influenza, meningitis, labyrinthitis, mumps, syphilis

Neural

  • acoustic neuroma or other tumor of or near the nerve of hearing and balance

Source: The Better Hearing Institute is a great resource. For more information go to http://www.betterhearing.org/.