What Causes Hearing Loss—and How to Lower Your Risk

What Causes Hearing Loss—and How to Lower Your Risk

Noise exposure isn’t the only thing to blame.

We all know someone who displays the classic signs of difficulty hearing: They run the television with its volume blaring or maintain the conviction that all their conversational partners are mumbling.

Alas, hearing loss is all too common.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that hearing loss is the United States’ third most common chronic health condition.

But just because it’s prevalent doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. Find out why hearing loss happens, along with the very best tactics to help reduce your risk.

What causes hearing loss?
“Aging and noise exposure are two of the most common causes of hearing loss,” says Jamie Soper, Au.D., of MercyOne Waterloo Medical Center in Waterloo, Iowa. What’s more, says Soper, almost half of all Americans over age 75 experience the issue.

She notes that other factors that can lead to hearing loss include genetics, excessive ear wax, certain medications, illnesses and lesions on the hearing nerve.

Why are loud noises in particular so problematic when it comes to hearing?

Inside your cochlea—or inner ear—are tiny hair cells that detect sound waves and transmit them to your brain. With exposure to loud noise, these cells can be damaged or die but they cannot grow back. As the number of functioning hair cells decreases, hearing is impeded. Forty million adults in the US between the ages of 20 and 69 have noise-induced hearing loss, according to the CDC.

Protect your ears
While you can’t change your genetics or the reality of getting older, you can take steps to limit your exposure to the kinds of noises that may cause irreparable harm to your hearing. (Listen up, concert-goers and construction workers!)

First, keep noises as low as possible. Stop bumping up the volume on the television or radio. “Keep recreational music to a reasonable volume,” advises Soper. The CDC offers a good rule of thumb: If shouting is necessary for someone nearby to hear you over the noise, your environment is too loud.

Second, remember to wear protection. Earmuffs or earplugs can help dampen loud noises. “Wearing hearing protection while in a loud environment can protect your ears from damage due to noise,” says Soper.

So plan ahead and take precautions when attending sporting events or firework displays and before you turn on the leaf blower or other noisy machinery or power tools. If you find yourself at a loud event without hearing protection, place yourself as far from the speakers as possible.

Consider your heart health
Yes, that’s right, cardiovascular health plays a role in your hearing.

Soper explains: “Your ears are very vascular, which makes them sensitive to changes in blood flow. People who are in good cardiovascular health have a lower risk of hearing loss.”

A 2018 study drawing on data from the Nurses’ Health Study II found a connection between a healthy diet and reduced hearing loss. To Soper, this points to the importance of healthy behaviors for maintaining good hearing.

“People who eat healthy tend to have good cardiovascular health and to take care of their bodies,” she says. “And, in turn, they take care of their hearing.”

Maintain your heart health by sticking to a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and lean proteins. And limit foods with lots of added sugars, trans fats and sodium.

Regular exercise is important, too: Strive for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity like walking or yoga, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity like running or swimming, every week. Always discuss any new exercise program with your doctor.

Get evaluated
If you are concerned about your hearing, the single best thing you can do is visit a licensed audiologist, says Soper. “They can give you a thorough audiologic evaluation, review your results and provide helpful options for follow-up care.”

Keep your age in mind, too. “I strongly believe that anyone over the age of 65 should get a hearing evaluation by a licensed audiologist,” Soper adds. It’s important to do so even if you think your hearing is perfect since an initial evaluation can establish a baseline, she points out.

How is hearing loss treated?
There are a few ways to treat hearing loss. And while there are high-tech options, Soper says simple communication adjustments—such as eliminating background noises and standing near conversational partners and looking directly at them—can be tremendously helpful for people with mild hearing loss.

Hearing aids, which make sounds louder, can help people with hearing loss, as well.

Trying them out is low-risk, points out Soper, so long as you do some research first. That's because many states—and many hearing aid manufacturers—have a 30-day or more trial period. If the hearing aid isn't helpful, you can return it (though some states require you to pay a small fee or cover shipping and handling.) Before testing, check your state's regulations. During your trial, you can see if the devices help you better pick up sound and speech.

For severe hearing loss, if hearing aids do not help, cochlear implants—electronic devices that stimulate your hearing nerve using electrical impulses—are an option for some people.

A patient with mild hearing loss might also ask their audiologist if over-the-counter personal sound amplification products (PSAPs)—devices that can help strengthen certain sounds—would be helpful.

Bottom line: A few sensible, healthy adjustments go a long way toward protecting your hearing. “As long as people take care of themselves from a cardiovascular health standpoint and protect their ears from noise exposure, they are doing everything they can to keep their hearing protected,” says Soper.

Medically reviewed in September 2020.

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