Patients often seek audiological care as treatment for existing hearing problems. Preventative audiology, however, can help patients maintain the health of their hearing and avoid losing hearing function in the future.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that 15 percent of adults over the age of 18 experience some degree of hearing loss. While the immediate impacts of hearing loss on an individual’s ability to communicate effectively are obvious, there are other, harder-to-detect issues linked to the condition, including dementia.
Hearing loss prevention requires a carefully coordinated series of lifestyle choices and audiological intervention. Age is the single most significant predictor of hearing loss in individuals, which means that it’s increasingly important for people to care for their hearing health as they continue to age. Most types of hearing loss are impossible to reverse; prevention is the best way for people to maintain their hearing health.
Causes of hearing loss
There are three primary types of hearing loss, as defined by the Mayo Clinic: conductive hearing loss, which involves the outer or middle ear; sensorineural hearing loss, which involves the inner ear; and mixed hearing loss, which is a combination of both.
Sound travels through three parts of your ear in order for you to hear. First, it moves through the outer ear. Then, it travels through the middle ear, where three small bones cause the vibrations to become amplified as they enter into the inner ear. Within the inner ear, the vibrations pass through a fluid that sits inside the cochlea. The cochlea, which is a snail-shaped structure, connects to nerves that convert the vibrations into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain.
Hearing loss can occur at any one of the stages of hearing. Different factors, however, cause hearing loss in different areas of the ear. Damage to the inner ear, for instance, is typically caused by a combination of aging and noise exposure.
While aging and noise exposure are the most significant factors that contribute to hearing loss, it’s important to note that some types of hearing loss may be hereditary, or linked to other health conditions, like ear infections, sinus congestion, or damage to the eardrum. Ruptured eardrums may be a result of sudden pressure changes or exposure to sudden blasts of intense percussive noise. Patients should discuss their medical and family histories with their audiologists.
There is a series of audiological interventions that healthcare practitioners can implement to assist patients hoping to prevent hearing loss and slow the progression of hearing-related conditions.
Arguably, the most significant thing that savvy audiologists can do to help their patients prevent the progression of hearing loss is prioritizing simple observation. Audiologists should remain acutely aware of the risks facing their patients’ hearing, and should be able to recommend lifestyle changes that could help to slow the progression of hearing loss.
Patients, regardless of age, should schedule a hearing test at least once a year. During this test, the audiologist should carefully analyze any risk factors that the patient experiences. Common risk factors include occupational noise exposure, smoking, prescription medication and earwax buildup.
If a patient is at an elevated risk of experiencing hearing loss, audiologists can prescribe a number of early interventions that may lower their vulnerability. Interventions can include more frequent hearing screenings or muffling devices like earplugs and ear muffs.
The most significant causes of hearing loss are lifestyle-related. Occupational exposure to noisy environments often contributes to hearing loss, as does exposure to elevated noise levels outside of work.
Activities like using firearms, attending live music events and playing percussive instruments can all lead to potential hearing loss. Performing these recreational activities on a regular basis, especially without proper hearing protection, could cause serious damage your hearing over time. If you’re at an elevated risk of hearing loss, you should exercise extreme caution when engaging in these activities. Always wear hearing protection as recommended by your audiologist.
Patients can also take charge of their own hearing health by learning how to effectively monitor and track their own noise exposure. Thanks to the prevalence of technology, it’s easier than ever before to monitor personal noise exposure. Patients can download smartphone apps that can provide them with a largely accurate picture of their daily noise exposure levels. They can then discuss this data with their audiologists.
Smoking is also a key contributing factor to hearing loss. Even exposure to second-hand smoke could result in the premature degradation of your ability to hear.
Some types of medications, meanwhile, like antibiotics and cancer treatments, are also known to cause hearing problems. If you have to take certain types of medications for existing health conditions, you should do everything possible to limit your exposure to other risk factors, like loud noises, that could cause you to prematurely lose your hearing.
Audiologists and patients can work together to design and implement a strategy to stave off hearing loss. By working in coordination with one another, healthcare providers and patients can create and follow preventative measures that will ensure the patient maintains their ability to hear and communicate effectively for as long as possible.