Hearing loss can occur at any age. No longer a problem limited to older people, sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) is happening to more of us and at younger ages. The vast majority of hearing loss starts with exposure to noise in the environment. Today, it’s increasingly typical to experience hearing loss earlier in life. A worldwide study has shown that 1.1 billion young people, ages 12 to 35, are already at risk for hearing loss at an early age because of exposure to loud music from digital music players and in bars, clubs, concerts and festivals.
Life is loud.
Exposure to intense levels of sound is a part of many of our entertainment, living and work environments. A majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, and cities are noisy. Earbuds, headphones and personal listening devices allow us to amplify sound directly into our ears at unsafe levels for extended periods of time.
Other factors may also cause hearing loss to begin. You may unknowingly be using medication that can put your hearing at risk. Hearing loss is a side effect of more than 400 commonly used prescription drugs including chemotherapy (cisplatin) and antibiotics (aminoglycosides). Another new potential cause currently under investigation is the Covid virus. The extent of Covid–related hearing issues is not yet known but hearing loss and tinnitus symptoms have been frequently reported. Certain hereditary genetic mutations cause hearing loss that may appear any time from birth through adulthood.
The age at which we experience hearing loss is a consequence of what our ears have been exposed to, both internally and externally. We tend to think of hearing loss as an inevitability of aging but that isn’t really accurate. As we get older, natural cell aging combines with the cumulative effects of exposure to external noise and trauma and possible internal exposure to viruses, ototoxic drugs or genetic mutations. Our brains adapt to the progressive deterioration of hearing cells, so it may take years until you notice you have hearing loss. By then hearing loss has become a permanent disability.
How does hearing loss happen?
We each begin life with about 31000 hearing cells, and when these cells die they can’t be replaced or regrown. These delicate sensory nerve cells allow us to hear. Hearing loss starts when these cells are damaged or die, usually (more than 90% of the time) because of long or repeated exposure to loud noise.
What are the early warning signs?
Our ears give us early warning signs that our hearing cells are under stress. Have you ever had a ringing in your ear that seems to come and go for no reason? Tinnitus, the ringing or buzzing in the ear, is a result of damaged or dying hearing cells. It originates in the neurons of the brain, but we perceive the sounds to be coming from the ears. These phantom sounds can be intermittent or constant and range in volume. Hearing loss from any cause is highly connected to tinnitus.
Another warning sign is temporary muffled hearing, something you may have experienced after exiting a loud movie or concert, or after turning off a noisy machine. Again, your ears are telling you that they are under stress.
What can you do?
Preventing the problem is the best solution; as Ben Franklin famously said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Human hearing cells do not grow back once they’re gone.
- Turn down the volume. Noise exposure accounts for more than 90% of all hearing loss. Check your electronic devices and see if they measure and give feedback about dangerous decibel levels and noise exposure. Since 2019, the Health app on IPhones gives users their weekly “dose” of sound exposure. Resist the temptation to turn up the volume.
- Use hearing protection when you know you’re going to be in a loud environment. Noise canceling headphones or earplugs will reduce your risk.
- Try to limit the amount of time you’re exposed to loud noise. Higher levels of sound can cause damage in a very short amount of time. As noise gets louder, the length of time you can safely be exposed goes down very quickly.
- Use a daily supplement that preserves the hearing you have and defends against the destruction of auditory nerve cells. The University of Michigan Medical School, with support from the National Institutes of Health, has developed a micronutrient supplement, Soundbites, that gives cells what they need to maintain their normal function, which extends their healthy lives. Learn more about how Soundbites can help you keep hearing.