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Special Guest Blog: Age related hearing loss

22 October 2012

Special Guest Blog: Age related hearing loss

Despite its descriptive name, age related hearing loss does not affect just the elderly but is a result of maturity processes that the body undergoes from the age of 40 years old and there is
little any of us can do about it. The precise impact and the degree of any resulting hearing loss will depend on a number of factors, meaning that some individuals will require further help, others will simply have to make minor adjustments to their lifestyle.

The catalyzer behind diminished hearing due to age, as well as other types of sensory impairment such as vision loss, lies in natural processes that the body undergoes and is known to affect over 9 million in the UK. In 2005 then the RNID (Now Action On Hearing Loss) conducted a first of its kind survey amongst 20,000 applicants. The results of the study
helped put hearing loss on the public agenda as 6.5 million were estimated to be over the age of 65 years old. Hearing loss that is left unmanaged can leadto a reduced quality of life, social exclusion and other well-documented mental discords.  Those who opt to ‘just live with it’ will experience a type of hearing loss that will get progressively worse over time, though there
are numerous ways to manage the conditions, some of which are in fact completely free using the National Healthcare Service.

How We Hear?

Our ability to hear sound combines a number of organs that work simultaneously to achieve what we take for granted. We begin to perceive sound is by vibrations in the ear and a healthy ear is able to pick up those vibrations. The structure of the ear includes three parts that are the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Vibrations in the air (or what we call ‘sound’) travel via each part until it gets to the brain where it is analysed and interpreted into something
meaningful for us. Different hearing loss conditions may signal a problem with all or any of the three parts, however in the case of age related hearing loss the main offender is the inner ear. Within the inner ear we find over 15,000 microscopic haircells that are tasked with capturing the sound before it is passed by means of the auditory nerve to the brain. As we grow older and due to natural processes (in addition to unnatural reasons such as harmful sound called Noise Induced Hearing Loss or NIHL) these microscopic haircells become damaged, die or diminish in their effectiveness. The result is an inability to hear certain frequencies of sound. Other contributing factors such as history, noise induced hearing loss and the proportionate amount of damaged microscopic haircells means that the degree of hearing loss varies between individuals, but will likely present its symptoms from the age of 40.  Symptoms include:

● Sounds seem less clear

● Not being able to hear the telephone of door bell ring when others can

● Other people may sound mumbled or slurred

● Inability to hear high-pitched sounds such as “s” and “th”

● Often having to ask people to repeat themselves

● Having to have the television or radio turned up much higher than other family members

● Feeling tired after participating in a conversation held within background noise

How Age Related Hearing Loss Is Managed?

ENT healthcare professionals use the terms ‘managed’ and ‘treat’ rather than cure. Simply put it, there is no cure for age related hearing loss, as the body is unable to regrow the microscopic
haircells whose damage lead to the condition. Although there has been some progress in recent years in terms of stem cell research no human trials have commenced as of yet. Any management solution starts with an extensive investigation to diagnose the precise cause(s) of the condition.

In the first instance, you should consult with your family GP who would be able to run a simple test to exclude some common reasons such as infection or certain medications. Should the
situation dictate, you will be asked to attend a hearing test at a local high street hearing centre or local hospital. The result of which will determine which aids will be prescribed in your case.

These aids often take the form of hearing aids or assistive listening devices. They work on the basis of amplifying external sounds and are designed to fit a whole host of lifestyles.
The most common are hearing aids that reside inside or just outside the ear and
suitable for most day-to-day activities. Hearing aids are offered at no cost from the National Health Care service or from private dispensers. Next are a group of more dedicated aids of the assistive listening devices type that include products such as amplified phones, vibrating alarm clocks and TV hearing aids. Assistive listening devices are only available privately.

Final Notes

Hearing loss is a type of sensory impairment that can be managed. Just living with reduced ability to hear can reduce quality of life for you or for your loved ones. Despite the recent economic downturn, Britain and its NHS still offer high quality ENT care, which is a shame not to use.

Article written by Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works
for Hearing Direct and she writes a weekly blog about hearing loss. You can read Hearing Direct guide to NHS hearing aids.