Haims: Understanding hearing loss and tinnitus
A number of years back, I went to an ear, nose and throat doctor to address a sudden onset of ringing in my ears. I had been sitting on the couch watching TV to distract myself from the considerable amount of stress on my plate. Out of the blue, my ears started to ring.
The onset was quite quick, and it felt like I had just left a concert where the music had been too loud, leaving my ears ringing. Unlike the waning ear ringing resulting from listening to music too loudly, this time, the ringing was not going to stop. I had the sudden onset of tinnitus, and according to the audiologist I subsequently saw, perhaps noise-induced hearing loss.
Tinnitus is ringing in the ears that often sounds like a roaring or hissing in the ear(s) while no external sounds are present. It occurs after exposure to very loud music or perhaps the firing of a gun. While it may be a mild or non-issue for some people, such that it does not impede one’s daily life, it can be severe and even disabling for others.
Unfortunately, it can cause a number of debilitating issues like depression, anxiety, irritability and even pain. It is not uncommon for those suffering from tinnitus to find it hard to sleep, concentrate, and occasionally, work or socialize.
Although the link between stress and the onset of tinnitus is causal, it does occur. Sylvie Hébert, a professor at the School of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Montreal, assisted in developing a study that found “53.% of individuals with tinnitus reported that their tinnitus had appeared during a stressful period of their life and 52.8% reported that their tinnitus increased during stressful periods.”
Fortunately, for the past few years, the tinnitus I have encountered has been mild and has not impacted my daily life too much. Often, I become aware of it when all around me is quiet — alone at night or when outside biking or hiking alone. Recently, I have noticed that while out socializing or having dinner at restaurants, I have had a hard time hearing conversations over the background noise. While this may be a consequence of tinnitus, it may also be the development of age-related hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss may be caused by sudden exposure to extremely loud sounds or by extended exposure to loud sounds. To put this into perspective, normal conversations may range between 60-70 decibels, concerts or sporting events may range between 94-110 decibels, and sirens or gunshots may range between 110-165 decibels.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the recommended maximum exposure time to sounds louder than 97 decibels is only 30 minutes. So, I’m not sure why I may have noise-induced hearing loss. After all, I only infrequently saw Pink Floyd, The Who, and U2 concerts lasting more than an hour or two when I was in my teens.
I’m sure the concert producers were aware of the recommended thresholds and kept the concert sound at the lower end of the 94-110 decibel range. Yes, I know, I am an idiot.
Age-related hearing loss
The medical term for age-related hearing loss is presbycusis (prez·buh·kyoo·suhs). For most of us, age-related hearing loss occurs gradually as we age. Sadly, it is a very prevalent condition affecting many aging adults. In the U.S., it is estimated that one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 experience age-related hearing loss.
Age-related hearing loss is often the result of the hair cells in the inner ear being damaged. These hair cells transform vibrations into electrical impulses, which transform sound vibrations into neural signals that the brain interprets and thus enables us to hear. Unfortunately, once these hair cells are damaged, they do not repair themselves nor do they grow back. When this happens, hearing is diminished.
In addition to the hair cells in the inner ear causing hearing loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, and changes along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain can also contribute to hearing loss.
A diagnosis for hearing loss starts by taking action. Denial only exacerbates the issue and threatens your ability to participate in conversation and socialization. Hearing is a gift — don’t take it for granted. Maintaining a healthy diet and seeing a doctor are two proactive things we can do to maintain our hearing.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He is an advocate for our elderly and available to answer questions. His contact information is VisitingAngels.com/comtns and 970-328-5526.