Hidden Hearing Loss in Young Adults

Hidden Hearing Loss in Young Adults

Hearing loss is typical as people age, but 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults globally are at risk of hearing loss due to audio devices and noisy clubs and concerts, according to the World Health Organization. 

Audiologist Ronna Fisher, AuD, has noticed an increase in hearing difficulties among her patients in their 30s and 40s. It’s a problem that’s more typical in patients over 50, says Fisher, founder of the Hearing Health Center, which has five locations throughout Chicagoland. 

“I’m seeing almost as many patients in their 30s and 40s as those over 60,” Fisher says. “The difference is that the 30- and 40-year-olds have normal hearing ability but can’t process what they hear, especially when there is background noise.”

The problem, she says, is “hidden hearing loss” or cochlear synaptopathy, which stems from damage due to loud noises — think ear buds and loud concerts. Usually, noise causes damage to the tiny hair cells in the cochlea that respond to sound. When hair cells can’t respond to sound, the result is hearing loss. 

In hidden hearing loss, the noise leaves the hair cells alone, and hearing is normal. Instead, the noise directly damages the synapses that transmit information from the cochlea to the auditory nerve and up to the brain. The result: normal hearing ability but inability to process what is heard, Fisher says.

“The brain is getting less and less information that it can make sense out of,” she adds.

Once the damage happens — hidden or otherwise — it can’t be fixed. Wear ear protection when necessary and turn down the volume in headphones. Otherwise, hearing aids may be in your future. 

Originally published in the Fall 2019/Winter 2020 print issue