Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage.com
How Our Hearing Changes As We Age
While we know loud sounds sustained over long periods of time without protection can damage our ability to hear, that's not the only cause of hearing loss. In fact, as we age, our ability to hear decreases naturally for most of us. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately one in three U.S. adults between the ages 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those 75 and older have hearing difficulty.
Our ability to hear comes from a rather complex process. Sound waves enter the outer ear and make their way through the narrow ear canal until they hit the eardrum. The eardrum then vibrates, which cause three small bones — the malleus, incus and stapes — in the inner ear to vibrate. These vibrations pair with the fluid vibrations in the snail-shaped, liquid-filled part of the inner ear called the cochlea.
The vibrating fluid inside the cochlea causes a traveling wave that allows small hairs to move in the basilar membrane. Microscopic stereocilia perched on the tips of the hair bend against the surrounding structure, allowing chemicals to rush into the surrounding cells, creating an electrical signal. From here, the auditory nerve carries the signal into the brain, and the brain interprets the data into sounds we recognize and understand.
Often times, age-related hearing loss is caused by the hair cells closest to the outer ear breaking down, making it harder for older adults to hear higher frequency sounds. The breakdown and dying of the delicate inner ear hairs can start as early as our 30s and 40s. This means making sure we protect our hearing from noise-induced hearing loss in younger years is even more important — we want to preserve our natural hearing as long as possible.
If you're a musician and you want to take preventative measures to protect your hearing, MusiCares' hearing clinics and programs may be able to help. And as they say, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Protect your hearing now!