Presbycusis (from the Greek “presbys” meaning “old” and “akousis” meaning “hearing”) is the gradual loss of hearing that occurs in most adults as we age. It can be difficult to distinguish age-related hearing loss from hearing loss that occurs for other reasons (such as noise exposure), but it is well documented that hearing loss is one of the most common conditions among older adults. In the United States, nearly half of people over the age of 65 have some degree of hearing impairment.
Presbycusis can be caused by changes in the inner ear, middle ear, or along the neural pathways from the ear to the brain as we age. It may also be related to ototoxic medications (medications that are toxic to the sensory cells in the ear) such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, and aspirin. High blood pressure and diabetes, which are more common in older adults, can also contribute to hearing loss.
With presbycusis comes other serious health risks. When we can’t hear normally, it can be difficult to understand and follow a doctor’s advice, locate and respond to warnings, and hear phones, doorbells, and smoke alarms. Hearing loss can also result in trouble understanding friends and family members, especially in noisy social settings such as restaurants, meetings, or parties. This can lead to feelings of isolation and depression, even resulting in increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Scientists have not yet found a way to prevent age-related hearing loss, but protecting yourself against noise-induced hearing loss can lessen the effects of presbycusis. Avoiding damaging noise levels, reducing the time of exposure to loud noise, and using hearing protection are all ways you can help prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
If you think you might have a hearing problem caused by age or noise exposure, it is important to see a hearing professional and have your hearing checked. Hearing problems can be serious, and it’s vital to identify the problem and evaluate your treatment options early. Even if you don’t think you need help hearing or aren’t ready for hearing aids, it’s a good idea to establish a baseline and have checkups as often as you have your eyes checked to monitor for changes. Treatment for presbycusis can vary from patient to patient, but the best chance for success is always to start earlier rather than later.