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Yes, we are losing hearing and these are the main causes

Premature (and irreversible) deafness is a rampant problem for healthcare systems around the world. Hearing loss affects more than 1 billion people, getting younger and younger

More than 1 billion people around the world could experience premature and irreversible deafness from their exposure to loud noise. The researchers highlight the need to carry out public policies that warn citizens about the risks of exposure to noise. We detail it below.

Main causes of hearing loss

Hearing loss is a rampant problem for the world’s healthcare systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1,500 million people live with a hearing disability. Within 30 years, he estimates that there will be 2,500 million. The aging of the population, exposure to high noise levels, and, to a lesser extent, some infectious diseases or genetic inheritance are the main causes.

The scientific community warns about the lack of social awareness of a problem with a great impact on daily life. “One in three people over the age of 65 will develop a hearing loss, also called hyperacusis. In the elderly, it reduces years of an independent life and is a facilitator of neurodegeneration. It prevents them from doing business, going shopping or understanding what the doctor tells them,” says Isabel Varela, president of the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBB) and research professor of Hearing Neurobiology at the CSIC (Superior Council of Scientific Research).

Deafness in young people

The path of deafness in contemporary societies is not only explained by the increase in the years of life. “Hearing loss depends less and less on age and more on how we care for our ears,” says Luis Lassaletta, head of the Otorhinolaryngology service at the University Hospital of La Paz (Madrid).

This is confirmed by WHO studies that estimate the number of people who could experience premature, irreversible, and preventable deafness due to poor ear care, either due to thunderous speakers in entertainment venues or high volume. of the headphones with which they consume series, podcasts, streaming videos , and video games…

In this case, to the advance of hearing loss must be added the low public awareness of the problem. The researchers regret the few statistical studies on the presence of deafness. The latest, prepared by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) in 2008, estimated 1,064,000 Spaniards with some type of hearing disability.

“Communication was never a problem in our society. There is much and very loud talk and lip reading is very informative in Spanish. But deafness reduces the quality of life, makes education and job integration difficult, reduces leisure possibilities, and is associated with subsequent cognitive decline, depression or neurodegeneration”, points out Varela.

Ear: normal values, symptoms, and treatments

The analysis of the hearing capacity is carried out from a test called audiometry, based on the emission of different tonal intensities measured in decibels (dB). To situate, a whisper includes 20 dB, the music of a live rock concert, between 80 dB and 120 dB, and the sound of a jet engine, between 140 dB and 180 dB.

  • Normal audiometry: when tones can be heard at less than 20 dB.
  • Mild hearing loss: when the maximum uptake of the ear is between 26 dB and 40 dB.
  • Moderate hearing loss: when the values ​​oscillate between 41 dB and 55 dB
  • Moderately severe hearing loss: between 56 dB and 70 dB.
  • Severe hearing loss: between 71 dB and 90 dB.
  • Profound deafness: when you do not perceive sounds of more than 91 dB.

Symptoms of problems in the outer or middle ear

Depending on the cause, we can talk about conductive hearing loss when it affects the external or middle ear, leaving a sensation of obstruction and muffling of words, with particular difficulty if there is a lot of background noise.

Among the most frequent causes are otitis, malformations or trauma, the adverse effects of some medications, tumors, osteosclerosis (the formation of a pathological bone in the middle ear), and earwax plugs.

Treatment options include medication, surgery, and hearing aids.

Symptoms of inner ear problems

If the affectation occurs in the inner ear, hearing loss is called sensorineural or neurosensory and makes sounds indistinguishable, especially in noisy conditions.

They are especially prevalent in childhood and can be caused by genetic inheritance or by prenatal environmental factors (such as infections by toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, rubella or syphilis), perinatal (due to premature birth) and postnatal (due to infections such as measles, meningitis, and mumps).

Vaccination against these viruses achieves effectiveness between 90% and 95%.

 Hearing loss is irreversible

In the case of adults, sensorineural hearing loss is considered a natural phase that develops progressively with aging. The scientific community does not consider it a disease because it reflects the normal situation of the organ in old age. It begins around the age of 60 , with noise disturbances and limitations in daily life. There is no specific treatment, but some patients may benefit from hearing aids.

The other cause of sensorineural hearing loss is acoustic trauma . That is, intense or prolonged exposure to noise that creates irreversible damage. Among its factors, sound intensity above 80 dB, followed by exposure time (longer, more damage), frequencies between 2,000 and 3,000 Hz, and individual susceptibility, which may have a genetic component. The search for a specific treatment is one of the challenges of medicine.

For now, hearing aids and cochlear implants would be the option for these patients. “Hearing aids are a good long-term solution for most hearing losses, always with proper monitoring of the evolution of the disorder,” explains Faustino Núñez, president of the Audiology Committee of the Spanish Otorhinolaryngology Society.

As this expert explains, “the otolaryngology specialist is, by law, the only professional qualified to prescribe these devices which, with the corresponding report, will be carried out by the hearing aid technician or audiologist”.

Noise pollution: turn down the volume to prevent deafness

The 2020 report on noise pollution from the European Environment Agency (EEA) determined that 20% of the European population —more than 100 million people— “are exposed to prolonged noise levels that are harmful to health”. The same institution emphasizes that noise becomes the second polluting factor harmful to health , just behind pollution. And the EEA’s forecast is that the damage will worsen in the coming years. “There is thunderous noise in gyms, sports competitions, concerts, discos, bars… ”, comments Isabel Varela.

Do you know how noise affects your health?
To this must be added the rise of headphones, devices that have achieved the status of a basic necessity, as confirmed by portals such as Statista, where the sale of these devices is expected to grow by 20% per year until 2027.

“From prevention, noise should be put at the same level as tobacco or driving speed, limiting the volume at which personal devices can be used and including alert labels, such as on tobacco packets. Also, reduce the limits of sound intensity in public spaces, with explicit recommendations for areas of sports and training activities. You are very permissive with a subject that will take its toll when today’s young people are 50 years old, ”analyzes Varela. Because, for science, recovering hearing loss due to exposure to noise poses a challenge full of unknowns.


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