Causes of Hearing Loss

Once upon a time, hearing loss was viewed as a condition that primarily affected older individuals. And while it’s true that a certain segment of the population – those 65 and older – is more susceptible to age-related hearing loss, the affliction is striking younger people, as well. People of all ages are at risk for hearing loss, but many cases can be prevented by taking a few simple precautions.

The Most Common Causes

The most common type of hearing loss is presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss. Diminished hearing is a common side effect of aging, usually coming on gradually and affecting high-pitched sounds most frequently. It occurs as a result of natural changes in the inner ear of an individual over time due to a variety of reasons including constant, cumulative daily noise exposure; hereditary factors; changes in the blood supply to the ear thanks to heart disease, high blood pressure, vascular conditions and circulatory problems; and side effects of some medications. An estimated 1/3 of adults aged 65 or older experience age-related hearing loss; that number jumps to nearly 50% by the age of 75. Presbycusis usually affects both ears equally. It may be mild, moderate or severe.

Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common type experienced in younger individuals. It can be caused by exposure to a single loud sound, such as a gunshot or explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud noise over a period of time. When sounds exceed 85 decibels (dB) they are considered hazardous to your hearing health; continuous exposure to volume levels that high causes permanent damage to the hair cells in your ears. Activities that put people at risk for noise-induced hearing loss include hunting, riding a motorcycle, listening to MP3 players at high volumes, playing in a band and attending rock concerts. An estimated 15% of Americans aged 20 to 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by noise exposure. This type of hearing loss can be prevented by wearing earplugs and protective devices.

Additional Causes of Hearing Loss

Many other factors can contribute to hearing loss, which is divided into two separate categories: conductive hearing loss (associated with problems in the middle ear) and sensorineural, or nerve-related, hearing loss (associated with problems in the inner ear).

Presbycusis and noise-induced hearing loss fall into the latter category; additional causes of sensorineural hearing loss include head trauma, viruses or disease, malformations of the inner ear, Meniere’s disease, otosclerosis, tumors and heredity.

Conductive hearing loss can be caused by ear infections, colds, allergies, impacted earwax, foreign objects in the ear canal, perforated eardrum, poor Eustachian tube function, and malformation of the outer ear or middle ear, including the ear canal.