Presbycusis (Age-related Hearing Loss)

Presbycusis: Is age-related hearing loss inevitable? What you can do to help preserve your hearing as you age.

We know that is it common for people to lose part of their hearing as they grow older, the phenomenon known as presbycusis. We also know that there are various factors that contribute to accelerated hearing loss over the years. So, how much hearing loss should we expect as a normal part of aging?

Is Hearing Loss Inevitable as We Age?

Because of all the factors that can contribute to cumulative hearing loss, it's very hard to separate out how much of lost hearing is due to aging alone. In particular, because nearly everyone in our modern world is subjected to damaging noise levels throughout the course of our lives, it's hard to determine how much of "normal" hearing loss might actually be caused not by aging, but by noise.

Could it be that much of the hearing loss that we think of as a normal part of growing older is actually caused by noise and other factors? An intriguing study* was conducted in 1962, with the Mabaan tribe in the Sudan. Because of their isolation from industrialized culture, there were no sources of loud noise in their lives — no motor vehicles, no firearms, no hammers, not even drums. As a result, they almost never experienced noise levels above 80 decibels. When researchers performed audiometric hearing tests on tribe members, they found almost no loss of hearing acuity between age 25 and age 75, even in the higher frequencies tested.

Now, noise exposure wasn't the only difference between the Mabaan culture and today's industrialized society, so we can't conclude that it's noise that causes most of our hearing loss as we age. The Mabaan tribe also differed significantly from us in their diet, use of pharmaceutical drugs, and overall health. But this study and similar research does suggest that hearing loss need not be an inevitable part of aging.

Preserving Your Hearing throughout Your Life

Keep this in mind, and reach for that hearing protection every time you need it! By avoiding exposure to damaging noise levels and minimizing the other risk factors to the extent possible, you have the power to preserve more of your hearing as you grow older. In addition to protecting your hearing from exposure to harmful noise levels, here are some other measures you can take to help preserve your hearing:
  • Review any drugs you take, both prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs, to see whether hearing damage is a potential side effect. Do the same any time you are prescribed a new drug, and discuss any concerns with your physician. Also, if you notice any hearing problem while taking a new drug, call your physician immediately.
  • If you smoke, make this one more good reason to quit.
  • Do what you can to reduce your risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. A healthy diet and regular exercise can go a long way. Ask your doctor what steps are appropriate for you.
  • Reduce stress in your life.

* S Rosen, M Bergman, D Plester, A El-Mofty, and M H Satti, "Presbycusis study of a relatively noise-free population in the Sudan," Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology 71 (1962): 727–743.

See also:
What is presbycusis (presbyacusis)?

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