Photo of young woman using headphones
Listening to loud music from headphones can lead to permanent hearing loss when repeated exposure to high volumes produces ringing of the ears, muffled hearing or other signs of temporary damage.

The gradual loss of hearing with age is a common and unwelcome condition, especially now among the millions of active, aging baby boomers who tend to be less tolerant of age-related health problems than their parents.

"Baby boomers are more demanding of age-related health care," said Robert Dobie, a professor of otolaryngology at UC Davis Health System and former director of extramural research at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "Boomers, unlike their parents at the same ages, are less likely to accept a hearing aid until told by loved ones that they are missing too many words in conversation."

Age-related vs. noise-induced hearing loss

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that one-third of Americans between the ages of 67 and 75, and half of those over age 75, have some degree of hearing loss. Age-related and noise-induced hearing loss are the most common conditions affecting adults.

Age-related hearing loss is associated with loss of hair cells and other cellular elements of the cochlea of the inner ear. As these tiny hairs break or the nerve cells that conduct signals to the brain degenerate, hearing loss occurs. Hearing loss progresses with age, accelerates over time and is largely controlled by heredity.

Noise-related hearing loss, on the other hand, is caused by exposure to loud noises and can be prevented.

"The number one thing anyone can do to prevent excess hearing loss is to use hearing protection and, for those who have excessive noise exposure, get tested annually," said Dobie. "Noise-related damage to hearing often occurs in younger people, but doesn't become noticeable until later in life when it is compounded by age-related loss."

Work-related exposure is the most common cause of noise-induced hearing loss. People who work at large companies often have hearing protection provided for them, but those who work in agriculture or small companies, such as welding shops, often must take their own initiative and wear protective gear.

Assessing noise levels

Being aware of the body's response to noise in the environment is key to preventing hearing loss.

"Any persistent noise that is loud enough so that a person has to shout to have a conversation at arm's length is too loud," Dobie explained. "Ringing of the ears or muffled hearing after noise exposure is an indication of temporary damage. If the exposure is repeated, temporary damage can become permanent."

Skeet and other recreational shooting are the leading non-occupational causes of noise-induced hearing loss. Despite common misconceptions, loud music from either concerts or headphones is not a common cause of hearing loss. However, repeated exposure at volume levels that cause temporary loss, such as ringing of the ears or muffled hearing, can lead to permanent loss.

"Minimizing exposure to loud noises is the best way to avoid hearing loss, and if the exposure cannot be avoided, proper ear protection is necessary," he said. "For those frequently exposed to high-noise environments, regular testing by an audiologist can help detect hearing loss early, allowing for additional protective measures to be implemented to prevent further damage.

Dobie cautions that anyone who experiences sudden onset of hearing loss or loss that comes on in just one ear should seek prompt medical attention. The cause could be as benign as wax build up or as serious as a tumor on a hearing nerve, which is much less common.