Types, Signs and Impact of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can be categorized by its severity as well as its underlying cause. In terms of severity, the loss may present as mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe or profound. Additionally, this loss can also vary depending on the pitches or frequencies of sound. A  hearing test can determine the severity of hearing loss that you experience compared to an average of many other adult listeners with typical hearing.

The volume of sounds you hear is measured in decibels (dB), 15-20 dB being the softest whisper and 120 dB being a jet engine. The softest sounds that one can hear are called thresholds. Normal hearing thresholds for adults are considered 0-25 dB across the range of frequencies tested.

To understand the underlying cause of any hearing loss, a hearing professional will usually compare your thresholds when sound is conducted through the air and when sound is conducted through the bones of your skull. By comparing these two routes, the audiologist can determine the type of hearing loss that you’re experiencing, which can be categorized as conductive, sensorineural or mixed. 

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a problem transferring sound waves anywhere along the pathway through the outer ear and middle ear, to the inner ear and the hearing organ called the cochlea. The problem may lie in the ear canal, eardrum (tympanic membrane) or in the middle ear (ear bones and Eustachian tube). The inner ear and auditory nerve are not affected in this type of hearing loss.

With this type of loss, individuals often complain of softer sounds being very hard to hear and louder sounds being very muffled or far too quiet. Conductive hearing loss is not unlike how you hear when you put Styrofoam earplugs in your ears.

Some possible causes of conductive hearing loss are:

  • Complete earwax blockage
  • Outer or middle ear infections
  • Perforated tympanic membrane or a hole in the eardrum
  • Deterioration of the middle ear bones (ossicles)
  • Otosclerosis, the fixation of the ossicles
  • Absence of outer ear or middle ear structures

Depending on the source of the problem, conductive hearing loss may be temporary or permanent. Diagnosis of conductive hearing loss can be made through a hearing assessment or ultrasound. Medical management can correct some cases of conductive hearing loss, while digital hearing instruments may be a recommended treatment option in long-standing or permanent cases.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the sensory receptors of the inner ear, specifically in the cochlea (the hearing organ) or in the auditory nerve. Most  sensorineural hearing loss occurs as a result of an abnormality or damage to the sensory hair cells in the cochlea. This prevents sound from being transmitted to the brain normally, resulting in a hearing loss.  

Individuals with sensorineural hearing loss may hear muffled speech, suffer from tinnitus (or ringing in the brain), have difficulty hearing in background noise or experience speech clarity problems.

There are a number of causes of sensorineural hearing loss, including:

  • Presbycusis: Age-related hearing loss; most common cause of sensorineural loss
  • Damage to hair cells: A deficit in hearing occurs when the hair cells are damaged as a result of genetics, infection, drugs, trauma or over-exposure to noise
  • Congenital: Hair cells in cochlea have been abnormal since birth

Sensorineural hearing losses are generally permanent, and may remain stable or worsen over time. Routine annual hearing tests are useful to monitor the progression of hearing loss over time. Hearing aids are the most common and successful treatment for sensorineural hearing loss, allowing hearing professionals to adjust their settings as the patient’s hearing needs change. 

Mixed Hearing Loss

Mixed hearing loss occurs when a person has sensorineural hearing loss in combination with a conductive hearing loss. This means there is a problem in the inner ear, as well as in the outer and/or middle ear. 

The conductive hearing loss component may be temporary or permanent, depending on the source of the problem. Mixed hearing loss can sometimes be treated with medical management, but hearing aids are the most common treatment recommendation. 

Signs of Hearing Loss

Most hearing loss tends to occur gradually — so gradually that sometimes we don’t realize just how much quantity and quality of sounds that we are missing. There are common signs of hearing loss that, when taken together, can readily identify that it has occurred. Have you, or someone close to you, experienced any of these challenges?

  • Hearing conversation poorly in noisy or crowded environments?
  • Do people around you seem to mumble, mutter or speak too softly?
  • Do you have to ask people to repeat themselves?
  • Do you find yourself lip-reading a lot just to understand others?
  • Do you find it more difficult to hear children versus adults?
  • Do you often have to turn up the volume of your TV, radio or telephone?

If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions, you may have impaired hearing. Call or e-mail us today, so we can help you assess your hearing and live better!

Impacts of Untreated Hearing Loss

Many people are aware they’re suffering from hearing loss, but find it difficult to admit it and get help. Those who have been diagnosed with hearing loss wait, on average, six years before seeking treatment. That’s a long time to suffer needlessly!

The reasons for waiting on help vary. Some people are frustrated by their hearing loss, believing it to be a sign of ageing. Others think their condition isn’t all that severe, or they may not realize how much modern digital hearing aids can help their everyday communication.

Regrettably, data shows that allowing hearing loss to remain untreated can lead to some serious downstream health consequences. The most recent studies highlight the negative emotional, psychological, cognitive and overall health effects of untreated hearing loss. These effects can vary as well, but all have serious impacts on your quality of life. 

Emotional Effects of Untreated Hearing Loss

Studies have linked untreated hearing loss to a several social and emotional health conditions, including:

  • Irritability, negativism, anxiety and anger
  • Fatigue, tension, stress and depression
  • Avoidance or withdrawal from social situations
  • Social rejection and loneliness
  • Reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety 

When you have hearing loss, you may experience difficulty following conversations in a group setting. Due to this problem, you’re more likely to socially withdraw from visits with friends and family, which over time, may lead to depression and anxiety. The prospect of being immersed in a family party or work meeting or large gathering, where numerous conversations are likely to occur, can leave you feeling anxious.

Untreated Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline

In addition to the impacts on your emotional well-being, untreated hearing loss has also been shown to affect your cognitive (thinking) health. When your ability to hear well declines, your brain receives less stimulation than it normally would, because it’s not working to identify different sounds and nuances. Over time, this lack of exercise for your brain can lead to cognitive decline, memory loss, or even dementia.

Think of your brain in the same way you think of your body; if you work out different muscle groups of your body, you remain healthy overall. However, if you instead only focus on one specific area, the other parts of your body become weaker. This is how untreated hearing loss may impact your brain. Use it or lose it. The portion of your brain that is responsible for transmitting and understanding sound becomes weaker, making memory loss more likely.

Benefits of Wearing Hearing Aids

Treating your hearing loss is the first step toward a healthier, happier life. Wearing a hearing aid can enrich your life and reopen many doors that may have closed for you over the years. Benefits of treating your hearing loss with hearing aids include:

  • Attending dinners or social gatherings in noisy environments
  • Enjoying parties and understanding conversation
  • Avoiding social embarassment
  • Hearing your grandchild’s first words or first music recital
  • Hearing nature again
  • Better communications with your partner  

How to Get Help

Hearing loss isn’t age-specific; it can affect everyone, from children to adults to seniors. The best way to know how to get help is to schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist. He or she will be able to help determine the degree and type of hearing loss you have. From there, the hearing care professional will be able to suggest a type and style of hearing aid that can help you begin to live a happier, more fulfilled life. If you think you, or a loved one suffers from hearing loss, don’t delay another day. Call or e-mail us today to take the first step toward a world of better hearing.