One aspect of health care that is usually considered more prevalent for men than women is hearing loss and diseases of the auditory system. In the past, men were more likely to have hearing loss that was the result of noise exposure while working, whereas women who were full time homemakers were generally in a more quiet environment. Of course, as women moved into non-traditional jobs, noise exposure has become an issue of concern for both sexes. However, other factors play a part in hearing loss, some of which are actually more commonly found in women.
What are causes of hearing loss in the female population of the United States? These are the main conditions that affect women's ears: aging, environmental noise exposure, allopathic drug therapy, cardio-vascular disease, tinnitus & hyperacusis, Meniere's disease, and otosclerosis.
Aging is responsible for the presbycusic loss found in elderly men and women which results in a loss of the high frequencies. It is due to the normal effect of aging on the delicate nerve cells in the inner ear, on the tiny bones in the middle ear, and even a loss of elasticity of tissue of the eardrum, etc. About 75% of individuals over the age of 70 will have some high frequency hearing loss. It is the most common type of hearing loss in this country, and the treatment usually requires the use of hearing aids. Aging can also affect the auditory cortex of the brain, and can interfere with the "understanding" of speech sounds as opposed to the inability to "hear" the sounds.
There are many noise hazards for females which can negatively affect the hearing system, both in and out of the home. Vacuum cleaners, mixers, and coffee grinders can all exceed safe noise levels, not to mention the noise from the work environment of certain occupations. This type of hearing loss tends to be seen the presence of a hearing loss around 4000 Hertz (a higher pitched tone), and treatment requires the use of hearing conservation measures such as ear plugs, ear muffs, and possibly hearing aids.
Many helpful and lifesaving medications can cause damage to the ear's delicate structures, and over time, the effects can be seen as hearing loss. Certain medications for cancer treatments can cause more serious hearing loss, and sometimes medication dose side effects are monitored via hearing tests. This type of hearing loss can also be helped in most cases by the use of hearing aids.
Cardio-vascular disease processes including high cholesterol and high blood pressure can also affect the inner ear functioning and cause permanent hearing loss. As women age, we are affected by these conditions and find the same problems as men do with the resulting damage to the inner ear from oxygen disruption. Again, these cases are often helped by the use of hearing aids to improve communication.
Tinnitus, which is a constant noise in the head, like a ringing or screeching sound, can affect women at any age and create problems with hearing and concentration. Hyperacusis, which is an extreme sensitivity to normal levels of sound, can be disabling and interfere with everyday activities. These conditions require special treatment from qualified professionals using a variety of therapies. The cause of these conditions is still under investigation, and are commonly found in women even without noticeable hearing loss.
Meniere's disease is a condition associated with problems in the inner ear, and is characterized by a loss of balance, nausea, vertigo, and hearing loss. It is often progressive and results in more hearing loss over time. Women with Meniere's disease need to be carefully monitored by an otologist or ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist. Sometimes hearing aids are appropriate but difficulties are present due to the fluctuating nature of the disease.
Otosclerosis is a condition found more commonly in middle aged women than men, and creates a hearing loss when a spongy mass of bone-like tissue grows in the middle ear space, preventing the tiny bones from doing their work. Surgery is often required to attempt to repair or replace the structures. This type of hearing loss is called a conductive loss as the inner ear is not affected in most cases, and the use of a hearing aid can be effective.
Women should have their hearing checked regularly during their adult life. It is important for adults to see an audiologist for the hearing evaluation at least once every 10 years through age 50, and once every 3 years after age 50, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association. Children, of course, should have their hearing tested more often, particularly younger children who are more prone to ear infections. Everyone should have their hearing checked at once if they notice a sudden change in hearing, a problem hearing in background noise, the need to turn up the TV or radio so loud that other complain, or a feeling that other people are mumbling all the time.
Hearing is our link to the outside world and it pays to keep your auditory system in good shape. Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf since early childhood, was asked once to decide which sense she would choose to have if possible, and she immediately responded "Hearing".
Over 1/3 of women over the age of 65 will experience periodic ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus.
In general, nearly 44 million Americans will have tinnitus in 1998, and of those individuals, about 2 million will be disabled by the condition, unable to work. Although individuals with tinnitus often have hearing loss, there are many normal hearing people with the disorder, and conversely, many hearing impaired who do not have a problem with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is characterized by noises in the head which are not generated outside the body: some people describe the sound as chirping, screeching, hissing, ringing, roaring, or pulsating. The condition has recently emerged in the medical world as new treatment methods have been developed with a much better chance of success.
The Oregon Tinnitus & Hyperacusis Treatment Center opened in the fall of 1997 as the first full time clinic in the Western USA devoted to provided Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT). The program has a success rate of over 85% with improvement in patient's ability to tolerate the tinnitus and to habituate to the sound.
A companion disorder, hyperacusis, which often precedes or accompanies tinnitus, is an abnormally low tolerance for everyday sound levels, and is also treated at the clinic.
Recently, several patients of peri-menopausal and post-menopausal ages reported fluctuations in the loudness levels of their tinnitus. The clinic director, Dr. Marsha Johnson, an audiologist with special certification in TRT, is collecting anecdotal data regarding this particular problem. She invites women of peri-menopausal and post-menopausal age with tinnitus to contact her clinic who may be interested in participating in a study group.
Comments, questions? Contact Dr. Marsha Johnson.