As the saying goes, “Time heals all wounds.” Indeed, there are a wealth of issues that can be handled by simply waiting it out – someone experiencing a cold can persevere for a couple of weeks and not worry about seeing a doctor, while a sprained ankle can be casually nursed back to health.
The origins of this expression go back too far to find – trust us, we’ve tried – but it can be assumed that when it was written, the inner workings of the ear and brain were not widely known information.
Hearing loss is not a scale that goes from “I can hear perfectly” to “I can’t hear.” There are numerous ways your hearing could be affected. This could mean there are some sounds that you can’t quite catch, or some environments where listening is harder than others.
Due to all these variables related to hearing loss, the question of whether or not your hearing can be fixed as you age is a complicated one. Continue reading to find out how you can look after your hearing going into the future.
Why do we lose hearing as we age?
Firstly, what causes hearing loss as we age? The most obvious answer is the morbid response that applies to the whole human body: natural decay. As time goes on, our bodies naturally begin to fail us. Our knees, our eyes, our hair, and of course our ears can all fall victim to time.
But there are preventative measures that can help you resist this slow collapse. When it comes to taking care of your ears, it helps to be proactive, not reactive.
5 steps to improve your hearing
1. Avoid loud noise
One of the most obvious ways to protect your ears is to minimize exposure to loud noises. Whether it’s an active construction site or a passionate jam to your favourite song on your headphones, always be aware of the kind of sound that your ears are being subjected to. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a lawnmower can do damage to your ears after consistent use, so be sure to wear hearing protection in similar situations.
2. Don’t clean your ears
No matter how satisfying it may feel, forcing a Q-tip (or any foreign object) deep into your ear can cause serious damage. The skin in your ear is quite thin, so any friction can damage or break the skin, leading to infection. A Q-tip can also compact ear wax further into the ear canal, which can muffle sound and only be removed by a professional.
3. Address ear conditions seriously
Ear infections are more common in children, but can still occur at any age. Addressing any potential infections quickly can significantly lower the chance of further damage to the ear. Otherwise, an infection can spread and lead to hearing problems, or even permanent damage.
4. Ask about receiving medication
Some medications for other health issues, like some antibiotics, chemotherapy agents, and even aspirin, can affect the ears. Before taking a prescription from a doctor, ask if the medication is ‘ototoxic’ (toxic to the ears.) If so, ask for an alternative medication or a reduced dosage.
5. As with any health concern, diet and general hygiene is important
As if you haven’t been given enough reasons to eat healthily and shun smoking, here is another – tobacco smoke has been found to negatively affect hearing. Similarly, a healthy diet can prevent hearing loss.
So if I follow these steps, my hearing will improve?
Well it’s a great first step, but nothing is that easy! There are four kinds of hearing loss, and each have different, sometimes uncontrollable causes. Here’s a quick rundown.
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss stems from a problem in the outer or middle ear. The problem may be as simple as an excess of wax, or something as complicated as an ossicular chain dysfunction – the official term for when one of the tiny bones inside the ear has a fault.
In simple terms, if your hearing system was a computer, conductive hearing loss would be like a key missing from the keyboard, or too much dust in a plug port. After a cleaning or replacement, the system would be back to peak performance in no time.
Sensorineural hearing loss
The main culprit behind hearing loss is sensorineural hearing loss, which is a lot more serious than its conductive brother. This kind of hearing loss accounts for around 90% of all hearing loss cases.
The science behind the way an ear picks up on noise involves tens of thousands of sensory hair cells within the cochlea. These hairs pick up on vibrations in the ear, which are then translated into sound for your brain. Due to the sheer amount of hairs within the ear, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few of these hair cells were to die or fail every now and then. The problem arises when a substantial amount of these cells stop doing their job.
These cells can be destroyed by infection, loud noise, medication, disease, or simple aging. The failure of these cells as we age is known as presbycusis, and is the form of hearing loss that most of us are familiar with. Once these cells are damaged, they cannot be restored, making this condition impossible to cure. Returning to our computer analogy, sensorineural hearing loss is a problem in the wiring of the computer. It’s as if some of the cables within your computer have been fried. It’s a lot trickier to figure out, and will require more attention to solve, as the only way to address sensorineural hearing loss is with either a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Mixed hearing loss
As the name would imply, mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. The conductive half can be addressed as it would be normally, but this still leaves the sensorineural half in its untreatable state.
Neural hearing loss
The rarest and most unfortunate form of hearing loss is neural hearing loss. This occurs when there is damage to, or a complete lack of the auditory nerve. As with any nerve damage (e.g. harm to the spinal cord,) this cannot be addressed at all. Hearing aids or implants wouldn’t help, as the nerve won’t pass on sound to the brain. It is as if your computer had no battery or power source – it simply wouldn’t work.
If my hearing is already bad, what can be fixed?
So what issues can be addressed? There are a couple of conditions that can lead to hearing loss which can be fixed in a single day, and generally require no further attention.
Common and easily treatable forms of hearing problems are associated with conductive hearing loss – the first kind we discussed. Most conductive hearing loss issues can be solved with medical attention, whether it’s a simple cleaning or a bone replacement.
The most common reason for conductive hearing loss is an ear infection, which are very frequent among children. These infections can be treated with antibiotics or surgery, and are generally resolved permanently.
If your hearing loss is sensorineural, you may be offered the purchase of a hearing aid. This can help amplify sounds appropriately, while making sure not to damage the remaining unscathed hair cells.
Remember – with the exception of neural hearing loss, all hearing loss can be prevented (or at the very least slowed down) using the five methods we listed above. As sensorineural conditions are untreatable (except with constant use of a hearing aid,) maintaining good hearing practices is especially important.
The future of hearing restoration
While research is focusing heavily on the restoration of sensory hair cells in the ear, as of 2019, there are no medical processes that can repair or replace these crucial cells. Hearing aids can help assuage sensorineural conditions, but if a hearing aid is removed or lost, the condition will remain.
Stem cell research and gene therapy are both being heavily researched with the intention of use in hearing restoration. However, with no concrete results on the horizon, prevention will always be the name of the game.
If you think you are undergoing hearing loss, it would be worth booking a free consultation with a hearing specialist near you. If you’re interested, follow this link to be directed to your nearest qualified hearing specialist. Any consultation is free, and they will be able to tell you what kind of hearing loss you’re experiencing – as well as the best way to address it.