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Author: J. Lewis Romett, MD
Hearing loss is one of the most common complaints of patients and their families. It becomes increasingly more common with age. Hearing loss affects about 35 million Americans, almost all of them over the age of 60. Hearing loss can be a considerable disability for the patient and the patient’s family. It can lead to isolation and slow decline in the elderly.
Hearing was thought to naturally decline with age, but recently it has been shown that hearing does not have to decrease as one ages. Good hearing in later years often depends on what happens to the ears during youth and young adulthood. Noise exposure, exposure to substances that injure the inner ear, and restriction of blood flow to the inner ear all contribute to hearing loss of aging or presbycusis.
Noise exposure, especially for long periods of time, causes the hearing to decrease. Compulsive use of hearing protectors has been shown to protect the ear and preserve hearing. Avoidance of loud noises is the most effective way to preserve hearing.
Noise from power tools, engines, and music can easily reach levels where the inner ear is damaged.
Good nutrition helps maintain good hearing. As we age deficiencies of trace minerals (such as zinc and magnesium) and vitamins (especially Vitamin D) can contribute to nerve deafness.
The inner ear has the highest concentration of zinc in the human body. Zinc levels decrease as we age, and the inner ear is less able to repair itself and preserve its function. Zinc supplements seem to help stabilize inner ear function and thus hearing.
Caffeine and nicotine both decrease blood flow to the inner ear. Avoidance of caffeine and nicotine helps inner ear function and thus helps preserve hearing. Many systemic diseases affect the inner ear including high blood pressure, low thyroid, diabetes, kidney disease, and many rheumatic or autoimmune diseases. Often control of the underlying disease will improve and stabilize hearing. Arteriosclerosis reduces the blood flow to the inner ear. Control of hypertension and control of high cholesterol and high lipids help improve blood flow to the inner ear.
Often hearing loss is associated with ear noise (tinnitus). Tinnitus is usually an indication of inner ear nerve damage. Systemic diseases as mentioned above, noise exposure, nutritional deficiencies, and exposure to substances that injure the inner ear could cause ear noise and hearing loss.