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4 Common Types of Hearing Problems

Why they occur and what you can do about them

Say what? Are you loosing your hearing? Here are ways to save it.

Do you have a hearing problem? Find out what you can do to fix it. — Dan Page

En español l You can lose your hearing for lots of reasons: age, genetics — and all those blaring rock concerts you attended in your youth.

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More than 26.7 million Americans 50 or older now have trouble hearing. For many people, auditory loss happens so gradually that they barely realize it. Others find that their ears seem to be working fine one day, and not so well the next.

Check out these four common types of hearing problems and what you can do about them.

1. You have trouble hearing people in a noisy restaurant

Why it happens: As you age — especially if you've been exposed to frequent loud noises — you might have presbycusis, a type of gradual hearing loss caused by the death of hair cells in the cochlea, in your inner ear. Those are the cells that translate sound vibrations into brain signals.

"The cochlea contains only 15,000 of these hair cells, and they don't regenerate," says Andrea Boidman, executive director of the Hearing Health Foundation, a research organization in New York. "When they die, it becomes difficult for people to recognize certain sounds or to hear speech clearly."

Difficulty hearing in noisy places is often one of the first noticeable signs of hearing loss. That's because filtering out background noise is a fairly complex process that requires precise auditory input from both ears. Quiet conversations aren't quite so taxing.

How to fix it: Although you can't repair damaged cells, you can prevent further loss by limiting your exposure to loud noises. Most conversations occur between 40 and 60 decibels; any sound higher than 85 decibels puts you at risk. Common culprits include electronic devices like iPods, music players and sound speakers that can blast out as many as 105 decibels.

"Listening to just one loud song can cause immediate damage to hair cells," says Monica Okun, M.D., an ear, nose and throat specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Her advice: If others can hear your iPod while you're using earbuds, the music is too loud.

If your hearing loss is starting to affect your everyday activities, talk to your doctor about a hearing aid. And before you balk, consider this: The newest models are so sleek that they're practically invisible.

"The latest technology effectively reduces background noise while simultaneously enhancing the ability to hear speech more clearly," says Ellen Finkelstein, chief audiologist at East Side Audiology in New York. "People can also hear voices that would be completely inaudible otherwise." For severe hearing loss, you may want to consider cochlear implants. Whereas hearing aids amplify sounds so that damaged ears can detect them, cochlear implants bypass damaged parts and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.

Red flags: People with kidney or heart disease have a higher than average risk of developing presbycusis. Researchers think that may be because poor kidney function leads to the accumulation of toxins that can damage nerves in the inner ear. And cardiovascular disease can decrease blood flow to the inner ear. "Improving kidney or cardiac function won't reverse hearing loss, but it can prevent it from worsening," says Okun. "I recommend getting a formal hearing test if you have either condition." The reverse may be true as well; if you have hearing loss, check your kidney and cardiovascular health.

Next page: You have a feeling of fullness in your ears. »

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