Doctor holding tool to patient's ear

The Causes of Acquired Hearing Loss

While only about 0.2% of children are born with hearing loss, about 14% of the population of the United States has it. That means that the vast majority of hearing loss is acquired at some point in our lives. While the most common type of acquired hearing loss is age-related hearing loss (presbycusis), there are several other causes of hearing loss that many of us will encounter:

  • Ear infections (common in children under age 6)
  • Ototoxic medications (“ototoxic” means “toxic to the ears”)
  • Meningitis
  • Mumps
  • Chickenpox
  • Measles
  • Encephalitis
  • Flu
  • Head injury
  • Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)

For those under age 60, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common cause of hearing loss. Above age 60, age-related hearing loss is common, and it is the most prevalent type of hearing loss, period.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)

Any sounds averaging above 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause hearing loss after eight hours of exposure. For every additional three dBA, the safe time of exposure is cut in half. That means sound levels averaging 100 dBA (about the volume at a high school dance) can cause permanent NIHL in about fifteen minutes.

NIHL seemed to be on the decline by the end of the 20th century, but it is on the rise again. While about 10% of millennials have measurable hearing loss, about 17% of Gen-Z’ers have it. This is especially concerning when we consider that Gen-Z is the younger of the two generations.

While NIHL is permanent and can be debilitating, it is completely preventable. All we need to do is avoid loud sounds when possible, and wear hearing protection when it isn’t. Employers are required to keep noise levels in a safe range or provide hearing protection, but even then, it may be that your average daily noise intake still adds up to a dangerous level if you, for example, ride a motorcycle to work without hearing protection.

Take care of your hearing and you will appreciate the results! If you do have hearing loss, it is never too late to start protecting your hearing to avoid additional hearing loss, and hearing aids are available to help you remain present in the world of sound.

Age-Related Hearing Loss (Presbycusis)

Age-related hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss, affecting one-third of those aged 60–69, and two-thirds of those aged 70 and up. Nearly 100% of centenarians have it, suggesting we will all lose some of our hearing if we only live long enough.

It’s not certain why aging seems to be accompanied by hearing loss for so many of us, and some audiologists even assert that age-related hearing loss is more of a phenomenon than a condition. Studies suggest that with a proper diet, exercise, and abstention from smoking and other ototoxic chemicals, it may be possible to avoid hearing loss in later life. The Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss notes that nearly every type of hearing loss has at least a genetic component, suggesting that some of us may be more prone to hearing loss than others.

Age-related hearing loss seems to be exacerbated by cardiovascular issues, and can even help identify an underlying cardiovascular problem before it becomes acute. Our ears seem to function like the “canary in the coalmine” of our cardiovascular system, likely because of the tiny capillaries that deliver blood to the stereocilia (tiny, hair-like structures that receive sound in our inner ears) are the first to experience a problem. When our blood is too thick and/or hypoxic (lacking oxygen), it does not provide the necessary nutrients to these delicate structures in our ears, and they can sustain damage or die. Once they are damaged, they do not heal.

If you are concerned about age-related hearing loss, the best things you can do to prevent it are to get regular exercise, quit smoking, eat an anti-inflammatory diet—such as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) or the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED)—and protect your hearing whenever you’re around sound above 85 dBA (about the sound level from a gas-powered lawnmower). 

If you think you have hearing loss, hearing aids are still the best treatment for it, and they’re better than ever. Modern hearing aids use powerful computers to help reduce background noise, suppress feedback (“whistling”), improve speech clarity, alter their programming automatically, and even help with spatial localization of sounds. They connect wirelessly to smartphones to stream phone calls and other media and can be controlled via apps.

If you or a loved one may have hearing loss, make an appointment for a hearing test today and find out what hearing aids can do to improve your life!