Audiology is a branch of medicine that studies hearing, balance and their related disorders. About one-third of all Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 have issues with hearing and almost half of the people who are 75 and older experience some hearing loss. Hearing loss can be small, such as missing certain sounds, or large where they are almost completely deaf. You may find that your loved one is unable to hear you clearly or at all when speaking either in person or on the phone. They may complain of people mumbling or turn the television up so loud that it is bothersome to others. They may also find it hard to keep up in conversations or have a hard time hearing when there is background noise such as conversations in restaurants. The types of hearing issues most often experienced by the seniors include:
Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SNHL) is a type of hearing loss that is caused by issues in of the eighth cranial nerve, central processing centers of the brain and inner ear. Of all of the types of hearing loss, SNHL accounts for about 90 percent. The most common type of SNHL is caused by abnormalities or damage to the hair cells that are found in the inner ear that help to amplify the sounds that enter the ear. A rare SNHL that involves damage or deterioration of the eighth cranial nerve where sound is produced causes cortical deafness. Tumors in the auditory system can also be a cause of cortical deafness. An example of SNHL is when sounds are heard normally but the quality of the sound one may perceive is so bad that they cannot understand speech. SNHL can occur from prolonged long-term exposure to loud noises, birth defects, aging damage, head or ear trauma, disease and infection. It can vary in severity from mild to severe and even complete deafness. Treatment for this type of hearing loss usually requires the use of a hearing aid or hearing rehabilitation such as learning how to lip read.
Conductive Hearing Loss occurs when there is some sort of abnormality or obstruction of the outer ear, eardrum or middle ear that keeps sounds from traveling all the way to the inner ear where it can be processed into what one actually hears. When this happens, hearing sensitivity is severely reduced. Possible causes of conductive hearing loss include:
- fluid in the middle ear
- ear wax buildup
- abnormal bone growth
- a tumor in the middle ear
- middle ear infection
- a punctured eardrum
At any age, conductive hearing loss can usually be treated successfully by medical or surgical means to restore hearing.
Tinnitus, also known as “ringing in the ears,” can be symptom of any of type of hearing loss. However, it can be caused by certain medications, health problems and/or exposure to loud noises. When your loved one experiences tinnitus, they may complain of a roaring, hissing, buzzing, clicking or ringing in one or both ears. It can present itself as either loud or soft and low-pitched or high-pitched. Severe tinnitus can affect your loved one’s daily living activities by making it hard for them to do things such as hear, concentrate, eat or sleep.
Presbycusis is a common gradual loss of hearing that occurs most commonly as a result of aging. Presbycusis typically affects both ears equally and, because the loss of hearing so gradual, your loved one may not even realize that they are losing their hearing. An estimated 40 to 50 percent of people with hearing loss are over the age of 75, with about 30 to 35 percent being between the ages of 65 to 75. Most people with presbycusis lose the ability to hear high pitched sounds. For example, if your loved one has presbycusis, they may be able to hear the low-pitched sound of a garbage truck rumbling as it comes down the road, but it may find it difficult to hear the higher pitched sound of a ringing telephone. Because presbycusis can happen as a result of changes to the middle ear, any of the other common hearing loss issues that seniors may encounter from long-term exposure to loud noises can also cause it.
If your loved one is experiencing any signs of hearing loss, you should visit a health care professional to assess the degree and type of hearing loss plus its possible treatment. Health care professionals who specialize in audiology are known as Audiologists. Their job is to screen and identify hearing disorders and/or any issues a person may have with their balance or dizziness by administering various tests. Treatments for hearing loss that audiologists can administer may include recommending and fitting hearing aids and cochlear implants, as well as providing training on how to use cochlear implants and hearing aids. While they are not doctors and cannot diagnose hearing and balance issues, they may refer someone to a physician when their hearing problem requires surgical or medical evaluation. Audiologists often work in conjunction with Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctors (otolaryngologists) to identify certain causes and effects of diseases of the ear and auditory system. An ENT physician diagnoses disorders that are found in the neck and head and performs related surgeries when appropriate.
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