Exploring the Different Types of Hearing Impairment

Many factors can potentially result in hearing loss, from age to heredity to injury. We'll go over a few of the most common.

Age

Age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, is among the most common types of hearing impairment. It generally has an incredibly gradual onset. In many cases, someone suffering from presbycusis doesn't actually realize they're losing their hearing — their loved ones often notice before they do.

Excessive Noise

The second most common cause of hearing impairment is noise exposure. It's no secret that the world we live in isn't exactly a quiet one. And that's incredibly unfortunate for our ears.

Noise-induced hearing loss can be either gradual or sudden. The former typically results from prolonged exposure to sound between 70-110 dB. This is because the loudest sound we can hear without suffering damage is around the 70 dB mark.

That said, some evidence suggests that even prolonged exposure to ordinary environmental noise may be harmful to one's ears.

Sudden hearing loss is typically caused by exposure to traumatic levels of noise. Any sound above 110 dB without hearing protection is highly likely to result in damage to the ears. This is in addition to being extremely painful.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has a decent list of examples to help you contextualize things:

  • Normal conversation (60-70 dB)
  • Cinema (74-104 dB)
  • Motorcycle engine (80-110 dB)
  • Max-volume earbuds, concerts, sporting events (94-110 dB)
  • Sirens (110-129 dB)
  • Fireworks (140-160 dB)

Disease

There are many illnesses that either directly cause hearing loss or may damage the ears as a side effect. In some cases, there's also a genetic/hereditary component to the illness. Per the American Speech Language Hearing Association, illnesses that may result in hearing impairment include

  • Acoustic neuroma. An acoustic neuroma is a tumor that in some way impedes one's hearing. This typically must be treated via surgery.
  • Genetic diseases. These may include Meniere's Disease, Usher's Syndrome, and Pendred Syndrome, to name just a few.
  • Ear infection. In some cases, an untreated ear infection can grow severe enough to cause permanent damage to the ear. 
  • Autoimmune ear disease. A little-understood disorder in which the immune system attacks the structures of the ear. 
  • Otosclerosis. A middle ear disease that causes the bones in the inner ear responsible for transmitting vibrations to fuse together. 
  • Diabetes and heart disease can both cause damage to the ears. 

Ototoxicity

Certain medications, particularly those intended to treat cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, may damage the ear as a side effect. This damage may be gradual, first manifesting as tinnitus before progressing into hearing impairment. Alternatively, it may be more immediate, with severe balance issues and rapidly-progressing hearing loss.

Injury

Just as traumatic noise can injure the delicate structures of the ear, a forceful enough blow to the head can lead to impaired hearing. Carelessly inserting foreign objects in the ear, meanwhile, has the potential to create blockages (cerumen impaction) or even perforate the eardrum.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss

Hearing loss isn't always avoidable. With that said, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of keeping your hearing healthy in the long term: 

  • Always wear hearing protection in loud environments.
  • Watch the volume when wearing headphones or earbuds
  • Eat right, exercise, and make sure you get enough sleep. 
  • Ensure you schedule a regular hearing test with your audiologist.