Presbycusis (Presbyacusis)

Facts about age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis (also called "presbyacusis"). Noise exposure and other factors that contribute to hearing loss in the elderly.

What is Presbycusis?

older woman looking contemplative
Photo by Rhoda Baer, courtesy of the US National Cancer Institute
It's not just a stereotype: As people age, it's common for them to gradually lose some of their hearing. Presbycusis (or presbyacusis) is the name for hearing loss that is attributed to normal aging. Among people who are 75 years old or older, it is estimated that 50% have some form of hearing loss.

Hearing at the higher frequencies is the most vulnerable. Most young children with healthy hearing can hear frequencies up to 20 kilohertz (kHz). But by age 75, the highest frequency a person can hear is around 13 kHz on average, ranging down to 8 kHz in some people.

Think of the entire hearing spectrum at birth as being represented by the notes on a piano keyboard. As you age, all of the notes gradually become softer and softer, and in addition, each year a few more keys are removed from the upper end of the keyboard. This hearing loss in the higher frequencies is especially troublesome because it reduces our ability to understand speech.

Hearing loss due to aging occurs so gradually that it usually goes unnoticed until it begins to interfere with daily living.

Factors that Accelerate Hearing Loss

Not everyone is equally affected by age-related hearing loss. You probably know some older folks who have become nearly deaf, and others whose hearing is perfectly fine. Here are some factors that contribute to hearing loss as we age:
  • Exposure to high noise levels results in hearing damage that accumulates over time.
  • Many drugs can cause hearing loss and other hearing problems such as tinnitus. This property is called ototoxicity.
  • Hearing loss can be accelerated by any condition or activity that affects blood vessels or circulation. Examples are:
    • Smoking
    • Diabetes
    • High blood pressure
    • Heart disease
    • Stress
    Because the blood supply to the inner ear is reduced, the delicate hair cells do not have the oxygen they need to fully recover from ordinary wear and tear, and temporary hearing damage can turn into permanent hearing loss.
  • Although both sexes are affected, on average men lose more of their hearing than women.
  • Genetics plays a part, as the severity of age-related hearing loss tends to run in families.
  • Differences in diet are known to affect susceptibility to hearing loss. Some nutrients may have a role in protecting hearing.

Read more:
Is hearing loss inevitable as we age?

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