What is a hearing impairment?
The term hearing impairment describes the partial or full loss of ability to hear sounds and can occur in one or both ears. There are many different causes for hearing loss, with the most common being aging and chronic exposure to loud noises. These forms of hearing loss are irreversible, and often go unnoticed because the change in hearing is not sudden and occurs gradually over time. Hearing impairments can, unfortunately, have deep social impacts, as individuals will withdraw from family and friends and often stop communicating as they can’t understand what is being said.
There are two general categories of hearing loss: sensorineural and conductive. Sensorineural hearing loss is characterized by damage to the inner ear (known as the cochlea) or the auditory nerve (the bundle of nerve fibers that relay information from the inner ear into the brain). Sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent and irreversible. Conductive hearing loss is characterized by a blockage of sound waves from reaching the inner ear. This includes hearing loss from severe earwax buildup and damage to the eardrum. Unlike sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss can be restored through medical intervention.
What are the signs of hearing impairments?
Many people suffer quietly from hearing impairments because they don’t realize it. Some signs a loved one or yourself might have a hearing impairment are:
- difficulty following and keeping up with a conversation with multiple people at once
- frequently asking for someone to repeat what they are saying
- having to turn up the car stereo or television louder than what other people are comfortable with
- difficulty hearing someone with background noise
- speaking much louder than others in the room
Who might be affected ?
Hearing impairments can occur to someone of any age. While newborns can suffer from hearing impairments due to a range of perinatal problems such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and premature birth, presbycusis (or age-related hearing loss) often affects seniors gradually as they age. Sudden hearing loss can occur to an individual immediately and should be taken very seriously as it is a medical emergency.
Individuals working in occupations with heavy exposure to loud noise are at great risk of hearing loss. While there is a temporary loss of hearing when exposed to a very loud sound like a jet engine starting up or the sound of a gunshot, prolonged exposure to such sounds will damage the inner ear. Adolescents and children can suffer from hearing impairments caused by excessive exposure to loud music in headphones, toys, and musical instruments. Unfortunately, most people overestimate how loud a sound must be to cause damage, as the World Health Organization estimates half of those between 12 and 35 are at risk from listening to music too loud on personal audio devices.
Age-related hearing loss is often a secondary effect of common health conditions in elderly populations. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions, strokes, brain injuries, and tumors can all cause sensorineural hearing loss in individuals. The use of certain medications can also cause hearing loss and are categorized as ototoxic as such. This includes antibiotics and medicines for the treatment of cancer and cardiovascular disease. It is important to follow up with your physician if you notice any hearing loss after the use of medication.
Inherited forms of hearing impairment may manifest later in life for patients, and as such are often not caught during newborn screening. The most common forms of genetic hearing impairments are Stickler syndrome, Waardenburg syndrome, Pendred syndrome, and Usher syndrome. Individuals with Down syndrome are at significantly higher risk for hearing impairments than those without. Congenital defects such as microtia (deformed outer ear) are often associated with conductive deafness.
Individuals who suffer from other diseases may suffer from hearing impairments as well. Autoimmune disease has been reported in some individuals to attack the cochlea, and so hearing loss can sometimes be indicative of an underlying autoimmune disorder. Likewise, MS can cause sensorineural hearing loss by attacking the myelin sheath protection that covers the auditory nerve, causing total deafness in the ear. Approximately one-third of children who were infected with syphilis during their mothers’ pregnancies will experience deafness later in life. There are complex interactions between countless diseases from HIV to measles that can cause partial or complete hearing loss in patients.
How can hearing loss be prevented?
According to the World Health Organization, about 60% of hearing impairment cases in children are completely preventable, and 50% of hearing impairment cases in all ages. For newborns and children, immunization from certain diseases that are known to cause hearing impairment such as rubella is extremely necessary. Premature birth is a factor in hearing loss, and the World Health Organization recommends healthcare professionals to take preventative measures against it.
As mentioned earlier, constant exposure to excessive noise levels is a leading cause in hearing loss cases, and therefore measures should be taken to moderate sound levels. Lowering volumes on headphones, and wearing hearing protection equipment in certain occupations are both excellent preventative measures against hearing impairment.
What solutions are there for hearing impairments?
While many forms of conductive hearing impairments can be dealt with surgery, medication, and other forms of medical intervention, permanent forms of sensorineural hearing loss often require assistive devices and hearing aids. Hearing aids are electronic devices that amplify sound and make it a lot easier for those with impairments to hear. A hearing aid can significantly improve the ability to hear clearly, and there are many different styles and types of hearing aids to best suit your individual needs.