In the past, hearing loss was often seen as less serious than other health issues. In recent years, its impact on health has become better understood. Untreated hearing loss can lead to withdrawal and social isolation. This can lead to depression and anxiety. But did you know that loneliness has severe health consequences? Its effect on mortality is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For longevity, loneliness is worse than obesity and physical inactivity. Even mild hearing loss doubles the risk for dementia. Beyond mental health, untreated hearing loss is also associated with trauma from trauma from falls, heart attacks, strokes and increased healthcare spending.
The ear has three parts, the outer, middle, and inner ear. The outer and middle ear are like the lens of a camera which focuses sound onto the inner ear. The inner ear is the “film” or “sensor” that converts sound into nerve signals that can be interpreted by the brain. There are three kinds of hearing loss. They affect volume and clarity of sounds differently.
Conductive hearing loss affects the outer ear, ear canal, eardrum, and the middle ear. These structures are responsible for changing vibrations in the air into movements inside the inner ear. Conductive losses result in diminished volume, but normal clarity of sounds. In adults, conductive hearing loss is most commonly caused by impacted ear wax, perforated eardrums, and ear infections. Less often, otosclerosis, cholesteatoma, and tumors of the ear canal and middle ear can cause conductive loss.
Sensorineural (Sense-SUR-ree-NUR-al) hearing loss affects the inner ear. Damage to any of these structures causes sensorineural hearing loss. Because the ear “sensor” itself is damaged, sensorineural hearing loss results in both diminished volume and clarity. This loss of clarity makes it particularly difficult for people with sensorineural loss to hear in background noise.
Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural losses. It is often the result of chronic ear disease and otosclerosis.
People with hearing loss often:
Diagnosis of hearing loss is done by an audiologist and an ENT physician. An audiologist performs a hearing test to determine the severity and kind of hearing loss. An ENT physician will determine the underlying cause of hearing loss and treatment plan. Conductive hearing losses are often correctable and lead to full restoration of function. Sensorineural hearing losses unfortunately cannot be cured. Hearing aids, hearing assistive technology, and cochlear implants can provide access to sound. When these methods aren’t great options or do not meet communication needs, signed languages may be an option.
Providing hearing technology and/or signed language is only the beginning. It is important to realize that these first steps are tools to provide access to sound and communication. Achieving fulfilling relationships and personal and employment goals with hearing loss requires a new set of skills. These skills include learning to effectively communicate and advocate for ones needs when living with hearing loss.
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