Science versus the Environment in Aging Hearing Loss

Nearly two-thirds of the population over the age 70 experience some degree of hearing loss.

Hearing Aid

Robert Gardner, Au.D, an audiologist at The Hearing Clinic in Denver, CO, is representative of the scientific view of age related hearing loss.

Over time, the nerve endings of the inner ear deteriorate leading to hearing deficiencies. According to Gardner, “The most common neural hearing loss is due to prolonged damage to nerve endings in the inner ear.”

Gardner, who also manages  retirement villages clinics in the Denver area, outlined the area in the inner ear that is commonly damaged in hearing loss in the elderly - the cochlea.

It is lined with approximately 20,000 tiny hairs – cilia – that act as nerve endings for the hearing nerve (vestibulocochlear nerve).

Cilia deteriorate due to aging, disease, noise exposure and a combination of these factors. Hearing loss cannot be regenerated and can only be replaced or repaired by medical science. “The only way to treat this type of hearing impairment is with hearing aids,” said Gardner.


Cochlear Implants for Extensive Hearing Loss

Ninety percent of people with nerve hearing loss are successfully treated with hearing aids. Severe deafness, due to extensive deterioration of the cilia, requires a cochlear implant.

Cochlear implants feed electrical signals to the hearing nerve but only possess a maximum of 32 electrodes as opposed to 20,000 nerve endings of the normal ear, said Gardner. Sound discrimination, such as higher pitches remains extremely poor, enough to understand speech, but not notes in a melody.

“A cochlear implant is a superb solution for the profoundly hard of hearing, allowing them to carry on telephone conversations and other practical behaviors.”

A Different Approach to Hearing Loss

Gail Gudmundsen, Au.D. and Managing Director, of the audiology division of Etymotic Research, in Elk Grove Village, IL, advocates an environmental approach to hearing loss in the aging community.

She points to new research designating the major cause of deafness to be the cumulative effect of lifetime noise exposure. Cilia deteriorate, but early prevention can ward off many problems in the elderly.


“Early exposure to noise sets up hearing loss in later life,” said Gudmundsen. “Age-related hearing loss can be traced back to prolonged noise exposure.”

Gudmundsen pointed to key culprits – including recreational ones – riding motorcycles, snowmobiling, car races, parades, and the subway. “It all adds up,” she noted.

A Growing Alternative to Hearing Aids

According to Gudmundsen, and other hearing specialists, many older people are unwilling to seek out hearing help and procrastinate. To bridge the gap, a new hearing category – PSAPs (Personal Sound Amplification Product) – is on the rise.

PSAPs are accessible and affordable and serve as a starter device for sufferers of mild hearing loss, said Gudmundsen. PSAPs are non-medical devices and are not regulated by the FDA. They don’t correct hearing loss and are not intended for that purpose.

“They are often called reading glasses for the ears,” said Gudmundsen.


Science or the Environment? Older people need to be aware of hearing loss alternatives, do their research, and be open to diverse avenues.