Can You Hear Me Now? Hearing Loss and It’s Effects On Communication
There’s no denying the importance of the five human senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. They are what allow us to interact with and experience the world around us.
More than any other sense, hearing is critical to our ability to communicate with each other. Certainly, touch and sight are useful in helping convey and interpret emotion – to see and feel what’s going on around us. Our hearing, however, allows us to put things into a specific context other senses cannot.
READ MORE: Effective Listening
Think about your world if you were unable to hear the following:
- Kids laughing.
- Birds chirping.
- The lyrics of a song.
- The dialogue from a movie.
- Someone saying I love you.
It’s not just the positive aspects of sound we’d miss out on either. Hearing works as a warning system. It can alert us to danger or aide in sensing when others are in distress, allowing us to intervene.
Imagine if you couldn’t hear the cries of a baby or tornado sirens or a fire alarm.
Hearing loss may also lead to a person feeling isolated or alone. Communication is a basic tenet of how humans interact. The inability to hear others speak can lead to poor work performance, sparse social interaction, or an individual withdrawing from those with whom they are close.
Studies have shown that hearing loss may even lead to dementia in older patients, with years of struggling to hear and the social isolation that comes with it, taking its toll.
As with the other senses, it’s easy to take our hearing for granted. When it works, we pay little attention to our capacity to hear and rarely think anything of it. That, however, is starting to change. Based on recent statistics, hearing loss is a growing health concern for many.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 48 million Americans suffer from some form of hearing loss. It’s considered the third most common health issue for older adults.
For children, the numbers are equally worrying. In the US, roughly two to three of every 1,000 children are born with a notable loss of hearing in one or both ears. Close to 15% of children ages 6 to 19 suffer from some level of hearing loss.
What causes people to lose their hearing? Is there anything you can do to prevent it? Let’s look closer at hearing loss, its symptoms and causes, and how to avoid losing it.
Hearing loss can affect anyone, whether it be permanent or temporary. For many individuals, deterioration of their hearing occurs as they age. To understand hearing loss, and why it can happen, you first need to know how the ear works.
Consisting of three major parts – the inner, middle, and outer ear – your ability to hear begins with sound waves passing through your outer ear. This movement creates vibrations within your eardrum, a passageway of sorts between your outer and middle ear. Then, the eardrum and three small bones – the malleus, incus, and stapes – amplify the vibrations.
The amplified waves enter the inner ear and pass through the cochlea. Nerve cells within the cochlea then turn the vibrations into signals which are transmitted and converted into sounds within the brain.
Hearing loss is not always easy to identify. Our ability to hear is often reliant on our environment. Just because you find it hard to understand someone in a noisy restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean your ears are suspect.
There are, however, a few early signs that, if persistent, may indicate potential problems that are worthy of a visit to your doctor. The most common include:
- Problems understanding basic speech or familiar sounds. This includes hearing muffled speech when someone is speaking clearly or everyday sounds that seem dull or muted.
- Having to ask people to repeat themselves, talk slower, or experience difficulty making out certain consonants or higher pitches.
- Require constant adjustment of the volume of the television or radio (up or down).
- Can’t discern what’s said in environments with a lot of background noise.
- Misunderstand words in a conversation when more than one individual is speaking.
As noted, isolated incidents of any of the above can happen to those with perfect hearing (for instance, someone may mumble when they talk). But since hearing loss can occur very slowly, you may not realize that the above symptoms have become part of your everyday life.
Medical professionals classify hearing loss into four types and four levels. The four major types of hearing loss include:
- Conductive Hearing Loss: Soundwaves are unable to reach the middle ear from the outer ear. Typically is treated with surgery or medications.
- Sensorineural Hearing Loss: An issue within the inner ear or from nerves within the ear as a whole.
- Mixed Hearing Loss: A combination of both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
- Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder: When soundwaves enter the ear but are not processed and transmitted to the brain correctly due to the inner ear or nerve damage.
The various levels at which hearing loss can occur includes:
- Mild Hearing Loss: A person can hear most sounds, and easily carry on an individual conversation, but struggle to discern either soft sounds or to hear over moderate background noise.
- Moderate Hearing Loss: A person must ask others to repeat themselves and struggle with conversations at what would be considered normal levels.
- Severe Hearing Loss: A person may only be able to discern loud noises or sounds. Conversations are challenging and for most require a hearing aid to understand them.
- Profound Hearing Loss: Unable to hear others speak, except when shouting or speaking incredibly loud. Can’t hold a conversation without the use of an implant or hearing aid.
Our ears suffer from a bombardment of sound. Many of us don’t recognize the stress our ears face every day. As we become conditioned to the consistently high levels of noise, it can be tough to gauge if and how our hearing may deteriorate.
But with a better appreciation of the strain and the potential risk factors, we can take better care of our hearing. In most cases, hearing loss stems from one of the following:
Inner Ear Damage
As with the rest of our bodies, the ear deteriorates as we age. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the nerves within the inner ear, where cellular decay also reduces the ability for the inner ear to deliver singles to the brain. Prolonged exposure to loud or excessive noise will speed up the corruption of the inner ear.
Earwax, in small amounts, helps to keep our ears functioning properly. It cleanses the ear canal, removing the buildup of hair, dirt and dead skin cells that accumulate over time. Earwax also acts as an antifungal and antibacterial lubricant, which keeps infections at bay. Too much earwax, however, will block the ear and prevent sound from reaching beyond the outer ear.
Rupture of the Eardrum
Loud, sudden noises, extreme pressure changes, and foreign objects within the ear can all lead to a ruptured or perforated eardrum.
In children, ear infections – inflammation of the middle ear – are common. Five out of every six children will have one before the age of three. Adults are also susceptible to infections and additional abnormalities that may impede hearing, including tumors or bone growth, particularly in the outer ear.
Much of the risks associated with hearing loss are well known. As we’ve already detailed with how it occurs, age and prolonged exposure to excessive noise pose the most significant risk to your hearing. Even a sudden burst of noise, such as that from a gunshot, can cause lasting damage.
When it comes to exposure, employees in specific industries may be at higher risk of hearing loss, including construction or factory workers or those in the military.
Genetics may also be a circumstance in hearing loss. Numbers show that between 50% and 60% of hearing loss in infants is the result of genetics. Heredity too can also increase the potential for hearing to deteriorate as you age.
Other factors that lead to hearing loss include medications, illness, and trauma. In the case of medicine, certain antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, treatments for ED, or excessive use of aspirin contribute to damage in the inner ear. Some medications can even cause tinnitus, which is a constant ringing in the ear.
With illness, anything that results in high fever or interrupts blood flow (high blood pressure or heart disease) may result in damage to the cochlea. Injury to the skull or brain also increases the possibility of impairment to your hearing.
Thankfully, when it comes to prevention, maintaining healthy ears is very much about taking common-sense measures.
Limiting your exposure to intense or excessive sounds is the number one way to prevent hearing loss. If loud noise is unavoidable, take steps to protect yourself with earplugs, earmuffs, or breaks a safe distance away from the source. This is critically important if your job revolves around loud or harmful sound.
As fun as they are, leisure pursuits like concerts, hunting, or blasting music in your car create havoc with your hearing. Protect your ears when possible, taking regular breaks away from the loudness. Even volume that is a few notches lower can make a huge difference.
Learn more about Masters in Communication Disorders programs.
Finally, make regular ear checkups a priority. Much in the same way as your eyes, routine hearing tests can help identify potential issues sooner and allow time to treat and prevent future hearing loss. Don’t take one of your most important senses for granted. Maintain a high level of communication with the world around you by keeping your diligence about hearing loss up and the volume down.
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