Like all of our faculties, hearing deteriorates with age. Unfortunately, this can’t be totally prevented but there’s still plenty you can do to minimise damage and keep your ears as healthy as possible.
The bizarre thing with our ears
While most body parts shrink with age, our ears do the opposite – amazingly, they carry on growing throughout our lifetime. No one really knows why, but one plausible-sounding theory by Berlin-based human biologist Carsten Niemitz is that this continued growth may offset some of the age-related hearing loss that happens to us all.
When we begin to lose our hearing, it’s the very high-frequency sounds that are affected first, gradually spreading to the lower tones. That’s why young children can easily hear the cheeping of a bat or may be bothered by the penetrating hum of electrical equipment, while many adults no longer even hear such sounds.
By the ages of 50 and 60, even those with the best hearing are affected to some degree. This happens to everyone who lives long enough, wherever they live in the world.
Why hearing changes
Age-related hearing loss begins when the fine, sensory hair cells in the inner ear become damaged or die. These hair cells play a crucial role in the hearing process. They are responsible for transmitting electrical signals that carry vital sound information to your auditory nerve, which in turn sends the information to your brain. But if the cells aren’t working properly, or there aren’t enough of them, some sound information won’t reach your brain, affecting your hearing. Unfortunately, these hairs don’t regrow and as more die over the years, your hearing gets worse.
Other functions of the inner ear deteriorate over time, too. Auditory nerve cells are lost, which means that incoming sound information may not be processed as well as in your youth. A study at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, recently showed that good hearing is related to the ability to concentrate – which decreases with age, too. Brain wave measurements in young and elderly people showed that 20- to 30-year-olds need to make considerably less effort when listening than 60- to 70-year-olds.
Preventing further damage
However, besides the natural ageing process, hearing can be further damaged by a combination of factors in our environment and lifestyle. In the West, this process has led to around one in every two men and one in every three women aged 65 having poor hearing.
The greatest modern challenge to hearing is noise from a wide range of sources including machinery, traffic, aircraft and music from concerts, bars and personal stereos.
The first sign of hearing damage is often a humming or ringing in the ears. This is usually temporary but it’s a sign that your hearing has been stressed. However, frequent exposure to loud noise over time will eventually lead to permanent hearing loss. Imagine that the fine hairs in your inner ear are like slender trees. As the wind blows, they bend but when the pressure gets too great, they buckle and break.
Prolonged loud music from personal stereos is a common source of hearing damage so it’s a good idea to set the volume when you’re in a quiet environment. It’s too loud if you need to switch it down to have a conversation or if the person sitting next to you can hear it. If you go to loud concerts, protect your hearing with earplugs.
Most noise-related hearing damage is from this sort of frequent exposure to loud noise but sometimes a one-off bang such as an explosion can cause sudden hearing loss.
Most pollutants damage the ear and hearing in the same way that they affect the rest of the body. This applies to smoking and alcohol abuse as well as other environmental toxins, so it’s a good idea to avoid smoking and smoky environments and stick to moderate drinking. If you have a lot of contact with chemical substances and toxic fumes, for instance at work, remember to protect your ears as well as your respiratory tract. Check and follow health and safety regulations.
It’s not widely known that many medicines can affect hearing and balance. This includes such seemingly harmless drugs as aspirin as well as certain antibiotics, heart drugs such as beta-blockers and diuretics, some antidepressants and the anti-malarial medication quinine. These substances, which are known as ‘ototoxic’, meaning they damage the inner ear, usually affect hearing only for as long as they are taken. However, others can lead to permanent damage including tinnitus, a condition that causes ringing in the ears, or vertigo, which causes a dizzy sensation, in addition to hearing loss.
Ideally, anyone taking these substances for any length of time should be closely monitored and the dose set as low as possible. However, don’t stop taking medicine without consulting your doctor first. If you’re concerned, ask if your hearing can be regularly checked and if there are any other drug options.
A healthy lifestyle helps hearing
It’s a little-known fact that hearing is affected by lifestyle, too. Certain conditions that affect circulation, such as heart disease, diabetes, high or low blood pressure, or atherosclerosis (blocked arteries) are known to harm the ears. There are many ways that poor circulation can affect hearing, including causing changes in the structure of the small arteries in the ear. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to keep your circulation healthy, for instance by eating a balanced diet, not smoking and avoiding smoky environments, sticking to moderate drinking, keeping stress to a minimum and, most importantly, by being physically active.
This doesn’t have to mean doing high-performance sports or even going to the gym, as shown by Professor Steven Blair at the University of South Carolina, USA. His research over recent years has repeatedly shown that a brisk walk every other day, regularly taking the stairs rather than the lift and cycling short distances rather than driving can all go a good way to boosting circulation, which in turn helps keep our bodies, including our ears, functioning healthily.
Do you need a hearing test?
Hearing problems usually happen gradually over time, which is why they can be difficult to spot in the early stages. The first signs most people notice are needing to have the TV or radio on louder and having problems understanding what someone says when there’s background noise. This is mainly due to the loss of higher frequencies, which means speech can no longer be properly filtered from the background noise.
You may want to consider a hearing test if three or more of the following factors apply to you:
- Other people seem to mumble rather than speaking clearly.
- Following a conversation, either with an individual or in a group, demands more effort than it did previously.
- You often misunderstand what others say.
- Family and friends complain that your TV or radio is too loud.
- You often have to ask people to repeat something.
- You have trouble understanding speech on the telephone.
- When there’s background noise, you find it hard to hear what someone is saying.