Hearing loss that occurs gradually as you age (presbycusis) is common. According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated one-third of people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 75 and close to one-half of those older than 75 have some degree of hearing loss.
Doctors believe that heredity and chronic exposure to loud noises are the main factors that contribute to hearing loss over time. Other factors, such as earwax blockage, can prevent your ears from conducting sounds as well as they should.
You can't reverse hearing loss. However, you don't have to live in a world of muted, less distinct sounds. You and your doctor or hearing specialist can take steps to improve what you hear.
Signs and symptoms of hearing loss may include:
When to see a doctor
Some causes of hearing loss include damage to the inner ear, a buildup of earwax, infections and a ruptured eardrum. To understand how hearing loss occurs, it can be helpful to understand how you hear.
How you hear
Your ear consists of three major areas: outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. Sound waves pass through the outer ear and cause vibrations at the eardrum. The eardrum and three small bones of the middle ear — the hammer, anvil and stirrup — amplify the vibrations as they travel to the inner ear. There, the vibrations pass through fluid in the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear.
Attached to nerve cells in the cochlea are thousands of tiny hairs that help translate sound vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to your brain. The vibrations of different sounds affect these tiny hairs in different ways, causing the nerve cells to send different signals to your brain. That's how you distinguish one sound from another.
How hearing loss can occur
Inside your ear
The middle ear includes three small bones — the hammer, anvil and stirrup. The middle ear is separated from your external ear by the eardrum and connected to the back of your nose and throat by ...
Factors that may damage or lead to loss of the hairs and nerve cells in your inner ear include:
Comparing loudness of common sounds
Adapted from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2008; the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 2009; and American Tinnitus Association, 2009
Maximum sound-exposure durations
Source: Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 2005
Hearing loss can have a significant effect on your quality of life. Among older adults with hearing loss, commonly reported problems include:
Unfortunately, most people affected by hearing loss live with these difficulties for years before seeking treatment — or never seek treatment at all. This also may cause lasting problems for those who love you, if you try to cope by denying your hearing loss or withdrawing from social interactions.
Benefits of treatment
Family and friends of people who have begun using a hearing aid are even more likely to report these improvements in shared quality of life.
Preparing for your appointment
Only a small minority of people with hearing loss seek treatment, but those who do report dramatic improvements in their relationships and quality of life. If you suspect you may have hearing loss, call your doctor. After an initial evaluation, your doctor may refer you to a hearing specialist (audiologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment and to know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
For hearing loss, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Tests to diagnose hearing loss may include:
Treatments and drugs
If you have hearing problems, help is available. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of your hearing loss.
Hearing aid parts
Hearing aids use these parts to help channel and amplify sound from your environment into your ear — microphone (detects the sound), amplifier (makes the sound stronger), speaker (sends the ...
Hearing aid styles
Many choices of hearing aid styles are available, including those that are completely in the canal (A), in the canal (B), in the ear (C) and behind the ear (D). ...
How cochlear implants work
Cochlear implants use an external microphone and speech processor that you generally wear behind your ear. A transmitter sends radiofrequency signals to a surgically implanted electronic chip, the ...
Coping and support
These tips can help you to communicate more easily despite your hearing loss:
Hearing loss prevention consists of steps you can take to help you prevent noise-induced hearing loss and avoid worsening of age-related hearing loss:
Last Updated: 2011-08-23
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