Hearing Loss: A Different Experience for Women and Men

Hearing Loss: A Different Experience for Women and Men
by Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Society for Women's Health Research

Hearing loss is a common problem for the aging population. One in three American adults over the age of 60 has a hearing problem and the number continues to climb as people age. Roughly equal numbers of women and men have a hearing impairment, but there may be some differences between the sexes.
There are disparities in high-frequency and low-frequency hearing patterns between men and women.
Sound travels as invisible waves through the air; faster traveling waves cause higher-pitch sounds. Frequency refers to how fast a sound wave travels. For example, a squeal is a high-frequency sound whereas thunder is a low-frequency sound.
Aging women have better high-frequency hearing than men. But women in their sixties through their nineties lose low-frequency hearing at a faster rate than men, according to researchers from the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
When it comes to communicating, "speech consonants are high frequency, so high-frequency loss causes difficulty in understanding words," said George Gates, M.D., a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the University of Washington. Over the course of a lifetime, "men seem to get more noise exposure than women and thus have more high frequency loss," Gates said.
In general, the loss of lower frequency sounds is where hearing problems evolve for many women. "Vowels are low frequency," Gates said, and the reduced ability to hear these sounds is more prominent in women according to the research.
Hormones may play a role in the hearing differences between women and men. New research from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., reveals that estrogen improved the hearing in female fish. And these findings may be able to be applied to human beings. "Human females have estrogen receptors in their ear," said Andrew H. Bass, Ph.D., lead researcher and professor at the department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell.
Hearing perceptions may fluctuate in women during their monthly cycles. "There are descriptions of cyclical changes in hearing sensitivity among human females during the menstrual cycle," Bass said. "But the significance of these receptors in the human ear is currently unknown." Although several studies in human females have examined potential hearing changes associated with hormone replacement therapy, the results have been inconclusive. More studies are needed to make definitive conclusions.
There are many reasons why men and women experience an overall impairment in their ability to hear. In age-related hearing loss or presbycusis, exposure to noise can damage part of the inner ear called the cochlea. This wear and tear can get worse over time. There seems to be some evidence that heredity plays a role, placing certain people at higher risk if hearing loss runs in their family.
For people in all age categories, the build up of earwax can prevent sound conduction and make hearing more difficult. Other causes of hearing loss include ear infection, abnormal bone growths, tumors and a ruptured eardrum.
There are several telltale signs that indicate a person may have a hearing problem. The person may ask someone to speak more slowly or loudly; have difficulty understanding certain words or his/her own speech may become muffled; need to increase the volume on the radio or television in order to hear properly; or may withdraw from social situations or conversations.
"People should get their hearing tested whenever they or their spouse think that they are having trouble hearing," Gates said. "People should also avoid prolonged exposure to loud noise whenever possible."