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Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a common problem caused by noise, aging, disease, and heredity. Hearing is a complex sense involving both the ear's ability to detect sounds and the brain's ability to interpret those sounds, including the sounds of speech.

Factors that determine how much hearing loss will negatively affect a person’s quality of life include:

Types of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss comes in many forms. It can range from a mild loss in which a person misses certain high-pitched sounds, such as the voices of women and children, to a total loss of hearing. It can be hereditary or it can result from disease, trauma, certain medications, or long-term exposure to loud noises.

There are two general categories of hearing loss.

Presbycusis

One form of hearing loss, presbycusis, comes on gradually as a person ages. Presbycusis can occur because of changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve, middle ear, or outer ear. Some of its causes are aging, loud noise, heredity, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs, and circulation problems such as high blood pressure.

Presbycusis commonly affects people over 50, many of whom are likely to lose some hearing each year. Having presbycusis may make it hard for a person to tolerate loud sounds or to hear what others are saying.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus, also common in older people, is a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing sound. It can come and go. It might be heard in one or both ears and be loud or soft.

Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease. It can accompany any type of hearing loss. It can be a side effect of medications. Something as simple as a piece of earwax blocking the ear canal can cause tinnitus, but it can also be the result of a number of health conditions.

If you think you have tinnitus, see your primary care doctor. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist -- a surgeon who specializes in ear, nose, and throat diseases -- (commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT). The ENT will physically examine your head, neck, and ears and test your hearing to determine the appropriate treatment.

Hearing Loss Can Lead to Other Problems

Some people may not want to admit they have trouble hearing. Older people who can't hear well may become depressed or may withdraw from others to avoid feeling frustrated or embarrassed about not understanding what is being said. Sometimes older people are mistakenly thought to be confused, unresponsive, or uncooperative just because they don't hear well.

Hearing problems that are ignored or untreated can get worse. If you have a hearing problem, you can get help. See your doctor. Hearing aids, special training, certain medicines, and surgery are some of the choices that can help people with hearing problems.