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5 Main Causes of Hearing Loss in Older Adults

By Home Care Assistance, 6:23 pm on

You may have noticed your senior loved one is having trouble hearing. During conversations, he or she strains to understand what’s being said. While watching TV, the volume is blaring. Fortunately, there are things you can do to safeguard your loved one’s hearing, but it’s important to understand what might be causing it in the first place. Birmingham, MI, in-home care experts discuss the top 5 causes of hearing loss and how to address each one.

1. Medications

WebMD advises hearing loss caused by drugs usually develops quickly. These 3 sudden symptoms are significant clues:

  • Ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus
  • A spinning sensation inside the head, called vertigo
  • Impaired balance

Here are a few common medicines known to cause hearing loss:

  • Aspirin, when taken in high doses of 8 to 12 pills per day, available as Ecotrin, Ascriptin, and Bayer
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen and ibuprofen, sold as Aleve, Advil, and Motrin
  • Antibiotics in the aminoglycoside family, such as gentamicin, neomycin, and streptomycin
  • Loop diuretics for treating high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, such as Lasix and Bumex 
  • Chemotherapy drugs, including bleomycin, cisplatin, and cyclophosphamide

These drugs can damage sensory cells present in the inner ear. The risk of drug-induced hearing loss increases if your loved one takes 2 or more of these medications simultaneously. Hearing deficits from antibiotics occur most often in elders with kidney disease. 

Typically, discontinuing the drugs responsible can restore hearing. However, sometimes the damage cannot be reversed. If you observe the rapid onset of tinnitus, vertigo, and unsteadiness, immediately bring these symptoms to your loved one’s doctor’s attention.

Permanent drug-induced hearing loss can be prevented by having your loved one undergo a baseline hearing test before starting any of the above medications. The audiology evaluation should include high-pitch testing and word recognition. During medication treatment, have the tests repeated. The drugs can then be stopped or changed before the hearing loss is irreparable. 

2. Atherosclerosis 

As adults age, blood vessels can harden and narrow, a process termed atherosclerosis. Fat and calcium accumulate along artery walls, forming a hard substance known as plaque. Over time, the deposits reduce blood flow. When vessels nourishing the inner ear are affected, hearing loss results. 

Your loved one can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis by:

  • Eating heart-healthy foods
  • Controlling high blood pressure
  • Avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a normal weight

If atherosclerosis is already advanced, a doctor may prescribe medication to lower your loved one’s blood pressure and cholesterol. Diabetes can exacerbate atherosclerosis, so stabilizing blood sugar is also crucial. 

3. Presbycusis

Seniors are subject to deterioration of their inner ear structures and auditory nerves. Sensory cells within the ear die over time, and nerve fibers transmitting signals to the brain malfunction. Cognitive impairment also changes the way the brain processes sound. Age-related hearing loss is termed presbycusis. 

Most commonly affected is the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, such as a ringing phone or beeping microwave. Words involving “s” or “th” sounds are also hard to distinguish. Presbycusis is worsened by exposure to loud noise, heart disease, and diabetes.

An ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor can diagnose presbycusis using a lighted scope to identify inner ear damage. Your loved one may then be referred to a hearing specialist called an audiologist for testing.

4. Impacted Earwax

Ear canals produce a waxy oil that traps dust, microorganisms, and foreign particles, preventing them from entering our ears and damaging them. Earwax also protects the fragile skin of the ear canal from irritation by water. Normally, earwax works its way to the opening of the ear canal, where it falls out or is removed by washing.

However, in the elderly, the outer part of the ear canal thins, and earwax becomes drier and harder. The wax can accumulate and become impacted, causing temporary hearing loss. A hearing aid can also cause wax blockage. Most cases of hearing loss in seniors are caused by impacted wax. Using cotton swabs to clean the ears can also push it deeper inside. 

Signs of impacted wax are muffled sound, tinnitus, fullness in the ear, and earaches. If a clog isn’t alleviated, infection can develop. Red flags for infection are drainage, severe pain, foul odor, coughing, fever, and dizziness. 

The safest means of removing impacted earwax is to visit an ENT. The doctor can either irrigate your loved one’s ears or vacuum them to clear out the ear canal.

5. Stroke

When blood flow to the brain becomes obstructed, nerve cells die. If the temporal lobe of the brain is involved, hearing loss can result. Additionally, your loved one may have difficulty recognizing sound combinations, such as musical tones, songs, and complex conversations. Auditory illusions can arise, causing normal sounds to echo or appear strange.

Hearing loss can also predict stroke. A 2008 study published by the American Heart Association showed sudden hearing loss could forecast a stroke 2 years in advance. Over a 5-year period, researchers tracked 1,423 people hospitalized for acute, unexplained hearing loss. The group with severe hearing loss was 150 percent more likely to incur a stroke within 2 years than the control group. 

To minimize your loved one’s stroke risk, monitor his or her blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight. Promote healthy eating and ensure he or she receives an annual physical. If your loved one experiences sudden hearing loss, take him or her to the hospital immediately.

Early treatment of stroke can minimize hearing loss. However, this faculty is not routinely evaluated after stroke. A senior with severe sensory impairment may not even notice a hearing deficit. If your loved one has a stroke, make sure his or her hearing is tested soon after.

To learn more about the causes of hearing loss in seniors and how to prevent it, reach out to Home Care Assistance. Our caregivers are trained to assist seniors with a wide variety of important tasks, and we also offer specialized stroke, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s care Birmingham, MI, families trust. For more information, call a Care Manager at 616-243-0835 today.