I've had two friends who've struggled with hearing loss, so I know how profoundly this health challenge can negatively affect every aspect of your life. According to many experts, hearing loss -- which is now being referred to as "America's silent epidemic" -- is more harmful to quality of life than many forms of cancer, diabetes, obesity or a stroke.
For years, loss of hearing was considered to be a harbinger of old age, but the advent of loud rock music and ear-splitting live performances, and the overuse of ear buds have introduced audio deficiencies to an entirely younger generation. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are currently at risk for hearing loss, and the numbers are expected to rise with each passing decade. In fact, U.S. government data estimates that approximately 5.2 million children ages 6 to 19 have already suffered permanent damage to their ears' inner hair cells due to repeated exposure to loud noises.
Age is, however, an undeniable factor when it comes to hearing loss. About 30 percent of people in their 50s, close to 50 percent of those in their 60s and nearly 70 percent of those in their 70s will notice a measurable decrease in their ability to hear correctly. And this unwelcome development is further complicated by the fact that the average older American postpones -- for seven to 10 years -- getting a hearing aid or device. Sadly, the longer people refuse to address their hearing loss, the greater the risk -- to the brain! -- of losing the ability to translate what someone says into usable speech.
A variety of factors can contribute to losing our ability to hear properly. They include the following:
--Changes in blood flow to the ear.
--Changes in the structure of the inner ear.
--Changes in the way our brain processes sound or speech.
--Damage to the tiny ear hairs that transmit sound to the brain.
--Exposure to loud noises.
--Family history of hearing loss.
--Impairment of the nerves responsible for hearing.
--Use of certain medications.
Currently, there are three theories regarding why we hear less as we grow older. One is the wear-and-tear assumption that with the passing years, our mechanisms for hearing correctly simply "age out." Other scientists believe in the free radical theory, which asserts that a lifetime accumulation of free radicals can irrevocably damage our hearing mechanism. And yet others insist that a genetic predisposition explains why some people can hear well into their 90s, while others struggle as soon as they hit the half-century mark.
Since the ability of the brain to translate sound is so essential to hearing well, there are a few mental-gymnastics programs specifically designed to keep the brain supple enough to hear well as we age. The first is the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program, an online program comprised of six exercises that target auditory processing and memory. And the other is Lumosity, which only takes 10 minutes a day to help the brain's neural pathways.
Marilyn Murray Willison's column, "Positive Aging," can be found at creators.com.