En español l More than 48 million Americans have some type of hearing loss that seriously disrupts their life. "That includes 1 in 6 baby boomers and two-thirds of those over 70," says Frank Lin, M.D., associate professor in otolaryngology and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Experts expect that number to rise as the gray tsunami of boomers ages.
There are two main types of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss develops when something — congestion from a bad cold, an ear infection, a perforated eardrum — blocks sound signals from reaching the brain. Sometimes only one ear is affected, and once the problem is corrected, hearing usually returns to normal.
Far more serious is sensorineural hearing loss, which usually occurs in both ears and is triggered by loud noise as well as aging. Most people gradually lose some hearing as they get older.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. Here are nine unexpected causes of hearing loss and steps you can take to reverse, reduce or prevent them.
Conductive hearing loss — which often can be corrected
1. Earwax buildup
This waxy substance, secreted by glands near the ear canal, prevents harmful substances — germs, dust and dirt — from reaching the ear drum. Too little wax and your ears are dry, itchy and a breeding ground for infection. Too much can lead to painful earaches and hearing loss, and, in some cases, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears).
What to do: Usually, wax moves naturally to the tip of the canal, where it can be safely wiped away with a washcloth. If this doesn't happen, your doctor can remove it. Don't try to do it yourself with a cotton swab, pencil or the tip of your glasses. You may push it deeper or puncture your eardrum.
2. Perforated eardrum
Infection, explosive noise near the ear, quick changes in air pressure, as well as poking around with a cotton swab, can puncture the thin tissue that separates the outer from the middle ear, leading to pain and temporary hearing loss.
What to do: Although a punctured eardrum usually heals on its own in about two months, it's best to have your ear checked by an otolaryngologist — an ENT doctor who specializes in treating the ear, nose and throat. Meanwhile, keep the ears dry and use warm compresses and over-the-counter medications to relieve pain.
3. Ear infection
Though far more common in the preschool set, ear infections because of bacteria or viruses can follow a bout with allergies or the common cold in adults, too. If the eustachian tube, which connects the ear to the throat, is blocked by swelling and inflammation, fluid buildup becomes a breeding ground for infection. The result: ear congestion, pressure, pain, fever or temporary hearing loss.
What to do: Infections usually clear in a few days. A warm compress and over-the-counter pain medications and decongestants can help. If you have fever or severe pain, call your doctor. You may need antibiotics.
Sensorineural hearing loss — usually permanent but often preventable
4. Listening to music with ear buds
Since ear buds don't block outside sounds, listeners often ramp up the volume for hours at a time. But these ubiquitous gadgets amplify sounds so successfully that it can top 100 decibels, loud enough to cause damage in only 15 minutes. "Anything over 85 decibels is potentially damaging," says Michael D. Seidman, M.D., director of otologic and neurotologic surgery at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
What to do: Since many new ear buds come with volume control, toss your old ones and buy ones that do. If the person sitting next to you can hear the music, it's too loud. Music headphones are even easier on the ears, but remember to keep the volume low, says Seidman, author of Save Your Hearing Now.
5. All those crazy-loud football games and rock concerts
Noise is noise, whether it comes from a rock concert, a leaf blower or a stadium full of football-crazy fans. "Even hair dryers can reach 90 decibels," Seidman says. While a single incident of explosive sound — such as fireworks or a jackhammer — can lead to hearing loss, more often it's caused by day-to-day exposure over an extended period of time. If you keep going to concerts, games and noisy restaurants, the very delicate hair cells in the inner ear become worn down, causing hearing problems. "The loss is cumulative," Seidman says. "Once hair cells are damaged, they're not replaceable."
What to do: Carry ear plugs everywhere. Foam or wax earplugs block out more noise than molded ones, or you can have earplugs custom-fitted. Never stuff cotton balls in your ears since that can lead to impacted wax and infection. Give your ears a break: Whenever you're in a noisy venue, find a quiet place to rest your ears for a few minutes. Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones to use when mowing the lawn or doing other noisy chores. And consider easing up on the hard-rock concerts.
6. Tipping the scale
Being overweight — especially if those extra pounds are around your belly — is also a risk factor. Researchers at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital followed more than 68,000 women in the Harvard Nurses' Health Study II and found that those who had more body fat and larger waists reported more hearing problems than those of normal weight.
What you can do: Get moving. Researchers found that walking for as little as two hours a week cut the risk of hearing loss by 15 percent compared with those who walked less than one hour per week. "We suspect that obesity affects blood flow to the inner ear, compromising hearing, while physical activity may improve blood flow and help protect the ear," says lead researcher Sharon G. Curhan, M.D.
If you have diabetes, you're twice as likely to develop hearing loss as those with normal blood sugar levels. Those with prediabetes face a 30 percent greater risk. High glucose levels are risk factors for heart disease and researchers suspect that the same destructive action is at work on the nerves and blood vessels in the inner ear.
What to do: If you have diabetes, see an ENT or audiologist for a hearing screening. To combat glucose overload, be sure to exercise regularly; cut back on highly processed foods, opting instead for fish, vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
8. Sleep apnea
A study of 13,967 people released last spring by the Albany Medical Center in New York found that those with sleep apnea — a stop-and-start breathing disorder — also had an increased risk of hearing impairment. While the connection between sleep apnea and heart disease has been known, this is the first time a link was also made to hearing loss.
What to do: Suspect sleep apnea? See your primary care physician, who may refer you to a sleep specialist. Various lifestyle changes and devices can open up a blocked airway. Make sure to also get your hearing checked by a professional.
9. Not wearing a hearing aid when you need one
Although not wearing a hearing aid won't cause hearing loss, there is some evidence that wearing an aid when you need one may help protect the hearing you have left. Unfortunately, only 1 out of 5 people who could benefit from a hearing aid wear one. "Most delay several years before accepting they have a problem and doing something about it," says Brad Stach, an audiologist at the Henry Ford Health System. Some people may not realize they have a problem. Others believe waiting won't cause any harm; still others are simply embarrassed to admit they can't hear well. But if you don't wear a hearing aid when you need one, or only wear it some of the time, you can lose the ability to process sounds.
What to do: "Your brain devotes a lot of resources toward hearing well," says Lin. "When words are garbled, it has to work harder to hear at the expense of other functions." Not wearing a hearing aid is also a safety concern, since hearing loss has been linked to falls, social isolation, depression, even dementia. So remind yourself that needing help with hearing is no different than needing glasses to read. Ask your doctor to check your hearing regularly and if necessary refer you to an ENT or audiologist who can diagnose the extent of hearing loss and suggest aids or assisted devices that can help.
Margery D. Rosen writes frequently for AARP Media.
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