Age-Related Hearing Problems Disrupt Normal Activity
Gradual onset commonly caused by changes in inner ear
By Jean Jeffers, Staff Writer

Hearing-related disorders occur more frequently as people age. Age-related hearing loss is the most common condition affecting seniors. Having trouble hearing can disrupt normal activity. The ability to hear a phone, a doorbell or a smoke alarm is important but being hard of hearing may impede it.

Age-related hearing loss has a gradual onset. It usually occurs in both ears. Most commonly, it arises from changes in the inner ear as people age or because of some anomaly along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain. Conditions frequently present in older adults, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, may contribute to hearing loss. Medications also could play a part.

Other hearing problems include tinnitus, which is a ringing or hissing in one or both ears. This condition is often due to a tumor on a nerve, an obstruction in the ear canal, temporomandibular joint dysfunction or sinus pressure. Another hearing-related problem is otosclerosis. This occurs when abnormal bone remodels in the middle ear. It is a lifelong process in which the bone tissue renews itself by replacing old tissue with new tissue. Because it is abnormal, it disrupts sound’s ability to travel from the middle ear to the inner ear. It most often occurs when one of the bones of the middle ear becomes stuck in one place. This could be the result of an ear infection, stress fractures or an immune disorder, but its cause is basically unclear. Hearing loss is the most frequent symptom of otosclerosis. This loss may appear very gradually. Some people have dizziness, balance problems or tinnitus. Mild otosclerosis can be treated with a hearing aid but surgery is often required.

Another hearing-related condition is a balance disorder. This makes the individual feel unsteady or dizzy. The person may feel as if he is moving, spinning or floating. It is believed that more than four out of 10 Americans will experience an episode of dizziness bad enough to make them seek medical help.

Balance disorders can be caused by certain health conditions, medications or a problem with the inner ear or the brain. This condition can disrupt everyday activities, causing hardship and alarm. Symptoms include dizziness, falling, feeling as if you are going to fall, lightheadedness, blurred vision and confusion. There are more than a dozen different balance disorders. These include benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), labyrinthitis, Meniere’s disease and vestibular neuritis.

Balance problems are initially treated by determining if another health condition or a medication is to blame. Next, the doctor may recommend a series of movements to help dislodge the otoconia from the semicircular canals.

If the patient is diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, recommendations may include changes to diet, stopping smoking and the use of anti-nausea medication. Sometimes antibiotics and corticosteroids are used. People with this disease need to take care while performing everyday activities such as driving, walking up and down stairs and exercising. Help is available through an otolaryngologist, an audiologist or a hearing-aid specialist.