For about one in three people, aging brings with it the problem of hearing loss. This loss is generally gradual and difficult for many with it to recognize, but by age 75, about half of all people clearly miss elements of conversation, including the joking asides, and ask much too often, "What did she say?" Those with aging eyes know their abilities are waning and require corrective measures, but it is not as cut and dry when it comes to hearing loss.
To find more about age-related hearing loss -- called presbycusis -- and if there is anything we can do to minimize or delay its onset, I spoke with audiologist Barbara McLay, MA, clinical associate professor of communication science and disorders and the head of a hearing conservation program at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF HEARING LOSS
She explains that age-related hearing loss occurs when the cilia, or tiny internal hairs, normally moved by different frequencies of sound, age and become less responsive. Once the cilia are impaired, hearing loss manifests itself in two different patterns or sometimes a combination of both. The first and most common one is loss of high-frequency sounds. Vowels and nasal sounds, such as m's and n's, are low-frequency sounds and as such are easier to hear. On the other hand, p, f, t and the other letters that require us to say on the phone, "... 'v' as in Virginia, ... 'b' as in boy," are high-frequency sounds. Women's voices usually are in a higher frequency as well. As the ability to hear higher frequency wanes, parts of words literally disappear and the resulting sound is unintelligible, as if the person speaking is indeed mumbling. The second pattern has nothing to do with frequency. This loss shows up across the board -- all sounds are muffled, not just those in particular frequencies.
CAUSES OF PRESBYCUSIS
While some people develop hearing loss as a result of specific causes, including from certain diseases such as Meniere's disease, or trauma, including a blow to the head or even having a cotton swab rupture the ear drum (the reason doctors caution against using them for ear cleaning), presbycusis generally develops over time for a variety of reasons...
Genetics. According to McLay, anyone whose older family members tend
toward hearing loss is more vulnerable to presbycusis as well.
Oxygen flow. The auditory system is extremely sensitive to oxygen. Newborns who are oxygen deprived, for example, often develop hearing loss as a result. Anything, then, that interferes with a healthy oxygen circulation puts stress on the system. Smokers, for example, won't necessarily lose their hearing, says McLay, but they are nevertheless more likely than non-smokers to suffer some loss. This is why there appears to be a correlation between those with metabolic syndrome, the six-point precursor to a number of life-threatening conditions, and hearing loss. (For more on metabolic syndrome, see the American Heart Association Web site http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4756.)
Noise is a prominent cause of presbycusis. For most people it isn't a few exposures to high-decibel experiences. Although these can cause temporary hearing loss, presbycusis usually results from a lifetime accumulation of noise exposure, says McLay. As evidence, in a decades' old study on an African bush tribe with especially healthy living and a quiet environment, researchers discovered that these natives had much better hearing in old age than people in noisier, developed societies.
Nutritional deficiencies. Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, adds that nutritional factors seem to also contribute to presbycusis, in particular the general sound-muffling type of hearing loss. At the root of many of the nutritional deficiencies are B-vitamins, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
While you can't take back errors of youth and the impact of those rock concerts from past years, you can make healthy changes to reduce your chances of losing your hearing.
As usual, self-defense seems to start with healthy living -- eating well and exercising to increase the flow of oxygen in your body and to reduce risk factors of metabolic syndrome. On a more specific note, protect your cilia. Avoid high-volume situations whenever possible... if you attend loud concerts, wear ear plugs says McLay, who explains that these do not cut out the listening pleasure, only the level of decibels that accost your ears. And wear ear plugs for mowing the lawn, using a power saw or other such activities, and when you walk by a jackhammer in the street, don't be shy about putting your fingers in your ears.
Dr. Rubman adds that there are certain nutritional steps you can take to protect your hearing, such as avoiding trans fats and supplementing with B-12, multi-B vitamins, omega-3 oils and octacosanol. These supplements serve to improve neurological transmission.
If it seems to you more people are mumbling lately, see an audiologist for a hearing test right away. The first reason is to determine the cause of a hearing problem -- it might be something that needs addressing, says McLay. For instance, a condition called otosclerosis, a bony growth in the ear, causes hearing loss and is correctible with surgery. If the problem is presbycusis, there are still ways to hear better, including a number of cutting-edge electronic hearing aids on the market today.
Additionally, common sense measures can make everyone much more comfortable. For instance, face the other person in a conversation whenever possible... limit background noise as much as you can... and seek out good lighting so you can use visual cues to help understand what a person is saying. Finally, letting others know you have hearing loss makes it possible for them to make appropriate accommodations so that you don't have to miss out on the conversation -- including the joking asides.