Hearing loss is not always obvious
Editor's Note: The following is an interactive question-and-answer feature appearing the first Wednesday of each month. Readers are encouraged to send health-related questions that will be answered by a local medical professional to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today's question is being answered by Kim Anthony, an Alliance audiologist whose office is in the Professional Office Building of Alliance Community Hospital.
Q: I am a 65-year-old male who has had normal hearing but I am finding it harder to hear the person with whom I am conversing in loud settings such as noisy restaurants, wedding reception, etc. Could this be the start of faulty hearing?" -- Christopher M., Alliance
A: Yes, this could be the start of the recognition that you may have hearing loss. It is documented in the literature that it may take five or more years before most people realize that they have hearing loss.
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is a gradual hearing loss usually occurring in both ears equally. Because the loss is gradual, you may not realize that you've lost some of your ability to hear until you start recognizing that you have problems hearing in certain situations.
A question I have to ask -- Did you have a complete audiometric hearing evaluation? Hearing evaluation includes several tests that measure how well you hear a variety of sounds, such as tones and speech.
If you did have a complete hearing examination and the results were that your hearing is within normal hearing levels, you may still be struggling to understand the person next to you above the background chatter at dinner parties or restaurants and hearing your spouse or family member in the home.
If so, you are not alone -- surveys suggest that more than a quarter of us have great difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments and have normal hearing. There is new research that coins this as "hidden hearing loss." This loss refers to the kind of difficulties not detectable by standard hearing tests.
People with this problem often have difficulty with complex listening tasks, such as understanding speech among background noise which can be very frustrating in social and work situations. This could be true of anyone with hearing loss.
We hear best in all situations when the signal-to-noise ratio is good. This means that the speech signal is way above the noise floor. When the noise floor starts to rise and meet the speech signal that is when it gets difficult to separate the speech from the noise background.
There are many factors that can cause hearing loss. Heredity, certain medical conditions and medications, as well as noise-induced hearing loss that can occur at any age.
Can age-related hearing loss be prevented? At this time, scientists don't know how to prevent age-related hearing loss.
However, you can protect yourself from noise-induced hearing loss by protecting your ears from sounds that are too loud and last too long. It's important to be aware of potential sources of damaging noises, such as loud music, firearms, snowmobiles, lawn mowers and leaf blowers.
Avoiding loud noises, reducing the amount of time you're exposed to loud noise, and protecting your ears with ear plugs or ear muffs are easy things you can do to protect your hearing and limit the amount of hearing you might lose as you get older.