Losing your hearing impacts your quality of life and is a suspected cause of dementia in older adults.
Using a hearing aid can help preserve your ability to communicate with others and stay active socially.
If you’re concerned about your hearing loss, we’re here to help. We’ll talk about what causes hearing loss, the degrees of hearing loss, and when you should consider getting a hearing aid.
What Is Hearing Loss?
The ability to hear involves three parts of your ear.
- Outer ear. The outer ear includes the visible part of your ear that you can see, called the pinna, and the ear canal. The pinna collects sound waves and sends them to the middle ear through the ear canal.
- Middle ear. The middle ear is home to the eardrum, and three tiny bones called the malleus, incus, and stapes. The sound waves vibrate against the eardrum, which vibrates against the tiny bones. The tiny bones amplify the vibration against the structures of the inner ear.
- Inner ear. The inner ear contains the cochlea, the semicircular canals, and the vestibular and auditory nerves. The vibrations from the bones of the middle ear cause the fluid in the cochlea to move, which causes tiny hair cells inside to interact with neurons. These neurons change the sound waves into electrical signals sent through the semicircular canals to the auditory nerve. The auditory nerve sends the electrical signal to the brain to be interpreted into the sounds we hear.
Hearing loss occurs when there is damage to one or some portions of the three parts of the ear or when there is damage to the brain or spinal cord.
The type of hearing loss you experience depends on the structures in the ear that are damaged.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
If hearing loss occurs due to damage to the structures of the inner ear, you have sensorineural hearing loss.
Age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, is a type of sensorineural hearing loss. Long-term exposure to loud sounds that leads to hearing loss is also a form of sensorineural hearing loss.
In most cases, the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea experience trauma or injury. These hair cells do not regenerate, so a portion of the hearing is lost.
Conductive Hearing Loss
You have conductive hearing loss if a hearing loss happens due to damage to the outer or middle ear structures. Conductive hearing loss can be due to trauma or injury to the ear and can also happen because of a blockage in the ear canal from earwax or a foreign object.
What Are the Degrees of Hearing Loss?
While spontaneous hearing loss is possible, most hearing loss is progressive and gets worse over time.
This is especially true with age-related hearing loss. It can be hard to determine when you need a hearing assistive device, like a hearing aid.
Hearing is measured in decibels. Hearing loss involves the decibels you can no longer hear.
In other words, if you cannot hear sounds until they reach 26 decibels or higher, you have lost the ability to hear sounds below 26 decibels.
Normal hearing is usually the ability to hear sounds beginning at -10 to 15 decibels. Based on this metric, the Hearing Health Foundation recognizes five levels of hearing loss.
Mild Hearing Loss
You have mild hearing loss if you can no longer hear sounds under 26 to 40 decibels.
This can make it difficult to hear people who speak softly, women and children, and certain consonants spoken at a higher pitch, like F, S, and H.
Moderate Hearing Loss
The inability to hear sounds under 41 to 55 decibels is moderate hearing loss.
At this level of hearing loss, it becomes difficult to hear vowel sounds or hear normal conversation. At this level of hearing loss, someone who does not use a hearing device may not be able to communicate as effectively as before.
Moderately-Severe Hearing Loss
This degree of hearing loss involves the inability to hear sound under 56 to 70 decibels.
This is an incredibly significant type of hearing loss that makes it impossible to hear another person talking.
Amplifying sound with hearing aids may still not be an effective solution unless the amplification includes technology that helps block out background noise.
Severe Hearing Loss
Severe hearing loss is often considered a complete loss of hearing. Sounds must be between 71 and 90 decibels for a person to hear.
This can affect the way a person can speak themselves. Someone with severe hearing loss may be able to hear extremely loud sounds, like a fire alarm or a gunshot, but even those will sound muffled or low.
Profound Hearing Loss
If people can no longer hear sounds below 91 decibels, they are said to have profound hearing loss.
This means they can no longer hear incredibly loud sounds, like airplane jet engines, fire alarms, or electric saws. Profound hearing loss is often referred to as complete deafness.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
There are many different reasons you can lose your hearing.
The most common is exposure to loud noise. Long-term exposure to loud noise can destroy the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea and leave you with a hearing impairment.
You can also lose your hearing due to:
- Infection and disease
- Genetic abnormality
- Trauma or injury to the ears
- Brain injuries
Hearing loss can be unilateral (in just one ear) or bilateral (in both ears).
If you have difficulty hearing, you should know there are different levels of hearing loss. Not all levels require a hearing aid, but hearing aids can be used to amplify sound and make a person more comfortable.
What Level of Hearing Loss Requires a Hearing Aid?
Most hearing experts and audiologists agree that hearing aids are needed when a person reaches moderate hearing loss.
However, that doesn’t mean a person with mild hearing loss isn’t still a candidate for hearing aids.
Using a hearing aid is a highly personal decision that depends on the wearer’s comfort level and desire to hear sound.
Quality of life can be dramatically impacted by whether or not you can hear. A hearing aid can help you hear better in noisy environments and keep you socially active.
How Is Hearing Loss Diagnosed?
If you suspect hearing loss, you can talk to your doctor.
They may refer you to a professional in the field of audiology, like a hearing professional or audiologist.
These professionals can administer a hearing test to determine your level of hearing loss and help you decide if a hearing aid is right for you.
The testing may include an audiogram, which helps you understand the decibels you can hear and those you can no longer hear.
Protecting your hearing to protect your quality of life and overall wellness is important.
For more information on hearing loss and other topics related to staying well, check out USA Rx’s Hearing Loss Blog.
You’ll find information on common health concerns, popular medications and product reviews, and tips for keeping healthy at any age.
References, Studies and Sources:
Hearing Loss and the Dementia Connection | Johns Hopkins | Bloomberg School of Public Health
Degrees of Hearing Loss|Hearing Health Foundation.org