According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, presbycusis is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs in most individuals as they grow older. Hearing loss is a common disorder associated with aging. About 30 to 35 percent of adults between the ages of 65 and 75 years have a hearing loss. It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of people 75 and older have a hearing loss.
The loss associated with presbycusis is usually greater for high-pitched sounds. For example, it may be difficult for someone to hear the nearby chirping of a bird or the ringing of a telephone. However, the same person may be able to hear clearly the low-pitched sound of a truck rumbling down the street.
Because the process of loss is gradual, people who have presbycusis may not realize that their hearing is diminishing.
With presbycusis, sounds often seem less clear and lower in volume. This contributes to difficulty hearing and understanding speech. Individuals with presbycusis may experience several of the following:
- The speech of others seems mumbled or slurred.
- High-pitched sounds such as "s" and "th" are difficult to hear and tell apart.
- Conversations are difficult to understand, especially when there is background noise.
- A man's voice is easier to hear than the higher pitches of a woman's voice.
- Certain sounds seem annoying or overly loud.
- Tinnitus (a ringing, roaring, or hissing sound in one or both ears) may also occur.
Causes of Presbycusis in Seniors
There are many causes of presbycusis. Most commonly it arises from changes in the inner ear of a person as he or she ages, but presbycusis can also result from changes in the middle ear or from complex changes along the nerve pathways leading to the brain. Presbycusis most often occurs in both ears, affecting them equally.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by disorders of the inner ear or auditory nerve. Presbycusis is usually a sensorineural hearing disorder. It is most commonly caused by gradual changes in the inner ear. The cumulative effects of repeated exposure to daily traffic sounds or construction work, noisy offices, equipment that produces noise, and loud music can cause sensorineural hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is most often due to a loss of hair cells (sensory receptors in the inner ear). This can occur as a result of hereditary factors as well as aging, various health conditions, and side effects of some medicines (aspirin and certain antibiotics).
Presbycusis may be caused by changes in the blood supply to the ear because of heart disease, high blood pressure, vascular (pertaining to blood vessels) conditions caused by diabetes, or other circulatory problems. The loss may be mild, moderate, or severe.
Conductive Hearing Disorder
Sometimes presbycusis is a conductive hearing disorder, meaning the loss of sound sensitivity is caused by abnormalities of the outer ear and/or middle ear. Such abnormalities may include reduced function of the tympanic membrane (the eardrum) or reduced function of the three tiny bones in the middle ear that carry sound waves from the tympanic membrane to the inner ear.
Exposure to Loud Noises
More often, hearing loss is caused by exposure to loud noises. Much of the hearing loss caused by noise exposure can be prevented. Awareness of potential sources of damaging noises, such as firearms, snowmobiles, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, woodworking machinery and loud appliances is important. Ear plugs or special fluid-filled ear muffs can give protection and should be worn to help avoid the possibility of damage to hearing. Excessively loud everyday noises, both at home and at work, can pose a risk to a person's hearing. Avoiding loud noises and reducing the amount of time one is exposed to everyday noises may be helpful.
Treatment for Presbycusis in the Elderly
There are many strategies to help people with presbycusis. Hearing aids may be recommended for some individuals. Assistive listening devices can provide further improvement in hearing ability in certain situations. One example of such a device is the built-in telephone amplifier. Another example is FM systems that make sounds clearer, with or without a hearing aid, by delivering sound waves like a radio. Training in speechreading (using visual cues to determine what is being spoken) can help those with presbycusis to understand better what is being said in conversations or presentations.
Consultation with specially trained professionals who work as a team is important for evaluation of a hearing loss and selection of appropriate management. An otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) should evaluate the individual with a hearing problem to make the diagnosis and exclude related systemic disorders that may contribute to the problem.
An audiologist is a professional who measures the hearing and identifies the type of hearing loss. The audiologist conducts a complete hearing evaluation and determines if a hearing aid may be useful. The individual is counseled about how a hearing aid may improve listening situations. Then the audiologist conducts hearing tests to find an appropriate aid, selecting one that maximizes a person's hearing and understanding of speech. Most older adults with hearing loss can benefit from using a hearing aid, although the degree of benefit may vary according to the type and amount of hearing loss.
Established in 1988, NIDCD is mandated to conduct and support biomedical and behavioral research and research training in the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech, and language.