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Hearing loss: likely, but not inevitable

Eknath Gomphotherium

As we get older, we can lose our hair, our eyesight, but the affect aging has on our hearing can be less apparent. And how can we stop hearing loss? This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Joseph Pellegrino, assistant professor and director of audiology at the Gebbie Hearing Clinic at Syracuse University, about age-related hearing disorders.

Click "Read More" to hear our interview with Dr. Pellegrino.

Age-related hearing loss is a gradual process, Dr. Pellegrino said, although it does not affect everyone. He says he sees patients who have an early onset of hearing loss at 45 or 50 and patients with perfect hearing at age 90.

“Inevitable? No. Likely? Perhaps. The statistics show that roughly 45 percent of people 65 and over have some degree of age-related hearing loss,” Dr. Pellegrino said.

In fact, scientists from the University of South Florida have identified a gene that is related to age-related hearing loss, meaning that there could be a genetic link to hearing disorders. Dr. Pellegrino said that before this was identified in late 2012, doctors believed hearing loss to be due to extensive exposure to noise. Dr. Pellegrino says that people who have been around guns or construction for an extended amount of time, for example, will have worse hearing as they age.

There are two factors that contribute to hearing loss, says Dr. Pellegrino: a physical factor and neurological factor. Physically, the inner ear has sensory cells that die off as a person ages. He says that this results in patients having trouble hearing higher frequencies -- things like younger children. In the middle ear, there may be a stiffening of the bone that could contribute to hearing loss. Neurologically, the connection between the ear and the brain dies over time, meaning it takes longer for sound that comes in the ear to process in the brain. For patients, this can make holding a conversation difficult.

So what can a person do to slow hearing loss after it starts? Dr. Pellegrino suggests that the earlier a person gets a hearing aid, the better. He says research from Syracuse University finds that individuals who pursue hearing aids earlier, adjust better and are happier with their devices. Not only that, but research shows that cognitive function is improved while a hearing aid is on.

In the last few years, Dr. Pellegrino says there have been incredible advances in hearing aid technology.

The size of the instruments is getting smaller, so that’s making acceptance of them much greater. They have progressed by leaps and bounds of the last seven to 10 years,” he said.

Besides being smaller and easier to operate, digital processors make the sound cleaner and crisper. Devices like mini microphones can be given to a person you’re speaking to and their voice is transmitted to the hearing aid. Amplifying a person’s voice helps to wash out background noise. Hearing aids can also be connected to a laptop or phone using Bluetooth to make listening easier.

Hearing aids can also help relieve tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. Dr. Pellegrino says that tinnitus is often related to hearing loss, but tinnitus can be a symptom of a number of disorders. He said that as a hearing aid amplifies the noise around them, the tinnitus goes down. Another option for patients with tinnitus, he adds, is tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). TRT is a combination of counseling and ear level masking devices that wash out noise so a person can’t hear the ringing, causing the stress to go down.