Age-related hearing loss - what you need to know

Doctor inserting hearing aid in senior's ear
Doctor inserting hearing aid in senior's ear

As you get older, it's natural to find that your hearing isn't as good as it used to be. Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis to use its medical name, can start in your 40s and gets progressively worse over time. More than 40% of adults over the age of 50 have some form or hearing loss, rising to more than 70% for those over the age of 70. By the age of 80, most people will have significant hearing difficulties. However, because it develops gradually, many people don't notice there is a problem in the early stages.

See also: Tinnitus: what causes it and what you can do

See also: Do you need to wear a hearing aid?

What causes it?
We have around 15,000 hair cells in the inner chamber of each ear, which play a role in helping us to hear. Presbyacusis is caused by wear and tear to these tiny hair cells – and once they are damaged or lost, there's no way to get them back.

You're more likely to suffer from age-related hearing loss if you have regularly been exposed to loud noise, smoke, have a history of middle ear disease, and if other people in your family have the same condition.

How your hearing changes
As your hearing deteriorates, you may have problems hearing high-frequency sounds, such as female or children's voices. You may also struggle to hear similar consonant sounds, such as "s", "f" and "th".

If you find that men's voices sound clearer than women's, and find it hard to hear what others are saying when there is background noise present, it can be an indicator of presbycusis.

Voices may also seem mumbled or slurred, and some people experience tinnitus (ringing or noise in the ears which isn't produced by an external sound) as a result of hearing loss. Headaches, vision changes and dizziness can also occur.

What you can do
If you're over 60, it's worth seeing your GP for an annual hearing check. If they detect a problem, they may suggest you wear a hearing device, or send you to see a specialist.

It's estimated that 1.4 million people use hearing aids in the UK, and many more would benefit from them. Hearing aid technology has come a long way in recent years, and there are lots of very small and discrete styles available, which can often be worn inside your ear. You can also get telephone amplifiers and other assistive devices.

The NHS offers hearing aids to people with hearing loss free of charge, these are usually the behind-the-ear type.