Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is a common health change for aging individuals. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss.
According to Jerry Eisen, hearing instrument specialist at Hearing Plus in Mayfield Heights; Dr. Danielle Hoenig, doctor of audiology at Centers for Hearing Care in Pepper Pike; and John Kandare, owner and audiologist at Chagrin Hearing Center in Chagrin Falls, age-related hearing loss is part of the aging process.
Hoenig said presbycusis is a gradual condition and that some people can start experiencing changes as early as their 40s.
“Age-related hearing loss is a sensorineural hearing loss caused by changes and/or permanent damage in the inner ear and pathways to the brain,” she said. “Most often, high pitches are affected before low pitches based on the shape and nature of the inner ear. What we hear from our patients is that they know someone is talking but they cannot always distinguish the correct words.”
Kandare said as individuals age, hearing tends to get poorer, indicating the condition is progressive. As each type of age-related hearing loss progresses similarly, some types are more common than others.
“The most common types of ARHL is high frequency, or high-pitch hearing loss,” he explained. “People with ARHL have difficulty understanding clarity of speech, especially in background noise environments. They also tend to report tinnitus or ringing in the ears.”
Eisen said a close family member of his lives with age-related hearing loss. Noting that his lifestyle choices contributed to the condition, he said it differs from person to person.
“His entire life has been noise-related,” Eisen said. “He has been hunting since his teens, active military service and is very handy with power tools. He is a Harley Davidson and all-around motorcycle enthusiast. He goes boating and works on motors. He also had a career as a firefighter. He has taken many years to come to grips with the negative effects of how hearing loss has affected those around him.”
When someone is suffering from age-related hearing loss, some signs indicate a struggle.
“It is so important for loved ones and family members to be on the lookout because with gradual hearing loss, sometimes the individual does not notice it themselves,” Hoenig said. “Some things to look out for are asking for repetition often, turning up the volume on the television/radio and having a blank look or nodding a lot in social situations.”
Kandare said those suffering from age-related hearing loss may struggle to pay attention in situations where there is much background noise.
“Some individuals withdraw from social situations because they can’t hear properly, it is especially important for these people to be fitted with proper hearing devices, and that they re-engage with social situations,” he said. “Research shows that individuals that choose not to participate in social situations because they can’t hear, show an increased risk of decline.”
Undiagnosed age-related hearing loss can make it seem like the aging individual is in cognitive decline, Eisen said.
“You may notice that a loved one has more difficulty in participating in conversations, they may start to isolate themselves,” he explained. “This can lead to family members leaving the hearing-impaired person out of the conversation, which isolates them. They don’t engage, so you wonder if it’s a cognitive decline or dementia. Do we need to start considering alternative care? It can look the same, but no, it’s hearing loss.”
Though age-related hearing loss isn’t reversible, it can be managed.
“Untreated hearing loss leads to other issues,” Eisen said. “Prevention is the best way to fend off age-related hearing loss. Starting at a young age can help. Health and fitness, minimal alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and discussing medications with your physician can all help for the long term.”
Hoenig said, “Just having diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease or being a current smoker can put you at a higher risk for hearing loss. Being aware of these factors can help you lower your risks for progression while actively monitoring your hearing and managing other health concerns.”
Kandare said, “We know that individuals that choose hearing aids sooner report more long-term benefits when compared to individuals that put off getting hearing aids. The sooner people with hearing loss choose to wear hearing aids, the better their outcomes will be.”