Understanding Elderly Hearing Loss

Apr 13, 2016

Understanding Elderly Hearing Loss

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We’ve all been there. You’re sitting around a family dinner and someone asks if grandma could pass the casserole to which she replies, “watch your language at the table!”

Although it can be easy to laugh off a misheard phrase or two, hearing loss is no joke. One in three people 65 and older have some form of hearing loss as a result of any number of factors. Now, studies in the Journal of Gerontology report that nearly 63.1 percent of adults in the U.S. will deal with significant hearing loss by their 70’s.

As something that is bound to affect nearly everyone at some point, understanding the various types and symptoms associated with hearing loss can help to treat and prevent further losses.

Types of Elderly Hearing Loss 

There are two main forms of hearing loss, conductive and sensorineural. When both of these types overlap depending on the individual symptoms, it is known as mixed hearing loss.

Some causes of hearing loss are more treatable than others, but just remember that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you do have difficulty hearing. A visit to your trusted otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) can reveal what might be impeding your auditory perception and offer up any available solutions.

Conductive Hearing Loss

This type of hearing loss is caused by any condition or disease that impedes sound from traveling through the middle ear cavity to reach the inner ear. Anything from a blockage to a fluid or wax build up can cause conductive hearing loss. In most cases, sounds are perceived as muffled, faint, or distorted, but otherwise the ear works in a normal way. Conductive hearing loss can often be treated surgically to result in a partial, or even complete restoration of hearing.

Possible Causes of Conductive Hearing Loss:

  • Ear canal or middle ear infection
  • Fluid or wax buildup
  • Scarring / perforation of the eardrum
  • Ossicle dislocation
  • Abnormal growths / tumors

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

When the nerves of the inner ear are degraded, sound is unable to be transmitted to the brain, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss. For people with this condition, others may sound as though they are mumbling, and sometimes there is a difficulty in understanding what is being said or heard. This is because the signal itself, not just the sound is obstructed on its way to being perceived by the brain. Individuals with sensorineural hearing loss have the potential to become confused or agitated by this impedance, so consider this if miscommunications arise.

Because there is a wide range of possible causes, this type of hearing loss is more difficult to treat and is often categorized as an irreversible condition. Bacterial or viral infections are a common source of sensorineural hearing loss but are treatable with antibiotics to different degrees. On the other hand, certain medications may have an ototoxic potential, meaning they can negatively affect one’s inner ear, auditory nerve, or vestibular system. Sometimes sensorineural hearing loss is strictly hereditary, and it is passed down through generations. Whatever the cause may be, this type of hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids or other implants should all other medical procedures be exhausted.

Possible Causes of Sensorineural Hearing Loss:

  • Injury
  • Excessive exposure to sound
  • Bacterial or viral infections
  • Ototoxic medication
  • Meningitis
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • High fever
  • Meniere’s Disease
  • Tumors
  • Hereditary factors

Mixed Hearing Loss

When a form of sensorineural hearing loss is compounded with a conductive element, the result is mixed hearing loss. Not only is the inner ear unable to fully receive and transmit sound to the brain, but also there is some dysfunction within the middle ear or ear canal that is impeding sound.

In order to find a solution to improve your hearing, an audiometric range test can provide insight as to which sounds you have the most difficulty with. The sooner certain symptoms are professionally treated, the higher chance there is of retaining or improving your current ability to hear.

Helpful Treatments and Devices

Today, only one in seven people who could benefit from using a hearing aid actually use one. When considering that nearly 26.7 million Americans older than 50 experience some form of hearing loss, it becomes evident that this issue is widely undertreated. Scientists and researchers continue to develop new technologies and methods of improving people’s hearing, yet fewer people than ever before are receiving the services they need.

Hearing aids come in a variety of styles and frequency ranges depending on your audiometric profile. Unlike devices of the past, new digital hearing aids can be tailored to fit your ears and provide an optimized auditory experience. Certain devices are able to actually block out background noise and preserve the range you need to hear, however, they can be quite expensive.

For more severe cases of hearing loss, your doctor may recommend a visit to an otolaryngologist to see if a cochlear implant may be appropriate. Essentially, this device is surgically placed under the skin and behind the ear to bypass non-working parts of the inner ear.

Although many consider gradual hearing loss to be a minor issue, studies by John Hopkins Medicine suggest it can be associated with poorer cognitive functioning, or even a risk of dementia.

If life is a symphony, you are its conductor. Hearing not only enriches our lives but also provides important perceptual information to stay safe and aware. If you or an elderly loved one has trouble with their hearing, don’t shrug it off or joke around for too long. A routine diagnosis can reveal any preventative measures and considerations, ensuring they will always hear how much they’re loved.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a hearing test take?

It depends on the doctor, but routine hearing tests typically take about 20-30 minutes. This involves an interview, examination, which determines what type of hearing loss you or your loved one has, and recommendations for treatment options. Most times, the recommended treatment option is a hearing aid.

The New York Hearing Doctors is a great resource that outlines the whole hearing test process from start to finish. Not only will it hep you to prepare, but it will also provide you with a better understanding of the test so you will know what to expect.

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I'm interested in getting hearing aids, but I'm worried about the cost. Does Medicaid or Medicare cover the cost of hearing aids?

Generally speaking, no Medicare and Medicaid do not cover the cost of hearing aids, but each state is different. In some cases, Medicare Part or Medicaid may cover certain deductibles or co-payments associated with hearing diagnostic tests. However, we recommend contacting your state Medicare or Medicaid agency to see if they can provide discounts or information regarding hearing aids.

The Hearing Loss Association of America also has several resources for learning about how you can receive financial assistance when it comes to paying for your hearing health

See All Answers »

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