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age-related hearing loss

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The ear bones

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Age-related hearing loss is thought to be a decline in the nerve function of the ear as a person ages.

What is the information for this topic?
The main area of injury in age-related hearing loss is in the cochlea, a snail-shell-shaped structure that generates the first electrical impulse for hearing. There is usually a loss of cells that pick up the tones, particularly in the high-frequency portion of the cochlea. As these cells are damaged, the cells lose their ability to transmit sound in the form of pitches. The loss of these cells accounts for the high-frequency hearing loss.

Hearing loss is so gradual that a person may not know that it has happened. Some signs are:
  • if another person complains that the older person cannot hear them speaking
  • if the older person turns up the volume on the television and it is too loud for others
  • if the older person finds it hard to hear conversation when there is background noise
  • if the older person has frequent ringing in the ears, called tinnitus
The main cause of age-related hearing loss is thought to be an accumulation of noise trauma over time. People who have noisy jobs or hobbies are at greater risk. The degree of hearing loss varies from person to person. There also are families who have inherited deafness that begins in middle age. This suggests that genetics plays some role in some cases of hearing loss.

A person's genetic makeup cannot be changed. But it is important to limit the amount of noise that enters the inner ear. For instance, a person:
  • should not use headphones to listen to music or other programs.
  • should not listen to loud music.
  • should wear foam ear plugs or ear muffs when mowing the lawn or using power equipment.
People with hearing loss often suffer from social isolation. Hearing loss can aggravate some forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Hearing loss is diagnosed with a hearing test, or audiogram. This test can determine how much of the hearing loss is a result of nerve injury and how much is a result of changes in the parts of the ear that transmit sound to the inner ear, such as the eardrum and ossicles, a small bone in the inner ear. Unfortunately, there are no medical treatments for age-related hearing loss. Hearing aids are the mainstay of treatment. And regular audiograms may be needed if the hearing loss progresses. This test tells the doctor how much hearing loss has occurred. It also helps determine if and what type of hearing aid may be most helpful.

Author: Mark Loury, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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