One in eight Americans show signs of hearing loss in both ears, according to standard hearing exams. Hearing loss can happen across the lifespan, although age remains the greatest predictor. That’s because hearing loss is most often caused by the act of aging itself, but it’s not the only way hearing loss can occur.

Most common types of hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss is how we refer to the type of hearing loss caused by damage to the inner ear or nerves. When hearing is impaired because of an obstruction, like a foreign object or a buildup of earwax, we call that conductive hearing loss. Most cases of conductive hearing loss can be resolved by removing the obstacle, but sensorineural hearing loss is more often a permanent condition.

Aging and exposure to excessive noise are far and away from the most common causes of hearing loss. Both create damage to the inner ear cells responsible for receiving sound from the external world and turning it into sound information in the form of electrical signals. These signals are sent to the brain and become meaningful in the brain’s processing centers. When we cannot access the full deployment of these cells, we send less sound information to the brain and the effect is that we hear less.

But while they are the most common reason people experience hearing loss, some unknown causes have been documented.

Strange causes of hearing loss

Vehicle airbags

Certainly, the risk reduction that comes from airbags is not worth arguing against, they certainly save lives. However, a recent study revealed that of those in accidents where airbags deployed, 17 percent showed hearing loss. The noise is much, much louder than one might expect. A Japanese study showed that the deployment noise exceeds safe volume levels by 20 percent.

Diabetes

We have long known the high correlation between diabetes and hearing loss, as it’s 50 percent more common in people with diabetes than in those without the condition. Almost half of the patients with diabetes have hearing loss and a portion of people with prediabetes do, too.

Hypertension

High blood pressure can also lead to hearing loss down the road. A study of adults with high blood pressure found that people with the condition were 54 percent more likely to have hearing loss. The condition affects blood flow to the ear, which causes an accelerated rate of damage to those important inner ear cells.

Smoking

Tobacco use can lead to hearing loss by as much as 70 percent. Exposure to second-hand smoke can also carry significant risks. Most cigarettes contain high levels of chemical additives like arsenic, cyanide, and even formaldehyde. These toxins also damage the inner ear cells.

Shingles

The shingles virus, which impacts people aged 60 and above, can lead to inner ear damage. Known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome, it can bring on swelling of facial nerves close to the inner ear. In many cases, it is a treatable condition and healthy hearing can be restored.

Symptoms of hearing loss

Depending on the cause of your hearing loss, you may experience a different set of symptoms. However, widely shared among folks with hearing loss in the early occurrence of having trouble with speech clarity, particularly when hearing is challenged due to trouble with inner ear cells.

Speech clarity is a subtle sign of hearing loss because it points to a loss of frequency rather than overall volume (as one might experience in a sudden noise incident or if an obstruction is causing the problem). It sounds like everyone is mumbling their words or you find yourself asking ‘what?’ a lot more often. You may rely heavily on closed captioning to enjoy your favorite tv programs. Telephone conversations might become effortful and frustrating and you may even begin to avoid phone calls altogether.

Don’t wait to treat hearing loss

Regardless of the cause, waiting to treat hearing loss can lead to unnecessary suffering. People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to report symptoms of depression and a sense of isolation, with other complicating issues relating to mental and emotional health. Physical impairments connected to hearing loss include a higher risk of falls and an increased chance of developing cognitive issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

But treating hearing loss has been proven to decrease symptoms of depression and hearing aid wearers are largely satisfied with their investment. A vast majority would recommend hearing aids to a friend. Beyond improving quality of life, treating hearing loss can decrease the risk of a future dementia diagnosis.

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