Your ears buzz or ring
Ringing or buzzing in the ears that comes and goes is one of the earliest signs of hearing loss. "When it's quiet, you may start to hear a low level buzzing or ringing sound in the background. When it becomes more noticeable and is more frequent or constantly there, that means you've damaged the nerves in your ear," says Robert L. Pincus, MD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at New York Medical College, and a physician in private practice in the New York Otolaryngology Group.
Headphone use is a big contributor to hearing damage, so younger generations should start paying attention to signs of hearing loss now, says Sreekant Cherukuri, MD, an otolaryngologist in Chicago who founded mdhearingaid.com, an affordable hearing aid company. "Permanent hearing loss can occur in eight to 15 minutes of listening to music on the maximum volume level," he says. "If you have temporary ringing or buzzing when you stop your music, that should be your earliest clue that it's too loud." Cherukuri suggests investing in over-the-ear noise canceling headphones because they reduce environmental noise, like traffic, which means you don't have to turn up the volume to hear. Ear bud headphones are popular but dangerous because they sit close to the eardrum, he says. (Here are some other surprising reasons your ears might be ringing.)
Your balance is off
If you notice yourself stumbling more often, clumsiness might not be to blame–this could be one of signs of hearing loss. "When people have trouble hearing, they spend so much effort trying to hear that simple things like balance get less of the brain's attention," says Dr. Cherukuri. Your inner ear canals send signals to your brain to help you balance, so damage to them may make you a bit off kilter.
You're getting more forgetful
"So much of memory is based on what you hear. It's hard to remember things when you can't hear," says Dr. Cherukuri. As you get older, though, hearing loss may become an indicator of mental decline. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that among 2,000 people over the age of 70, those with hearing loss had a faster decline in thinking skills over a six-year period than those with better hearing. These signs of hearing loss often leads to social isolation, which is a risk factor for cognitive decline. Another factor: When hearing is impaired, the brain may devote extra energy to processing sound at the expense of memory and thinking. (This is what your earwax says about your health.)
Loud noises are painful
Rumbling subways and car horns can be loud and irritating, but the sounds shouldn't be painful. If they are, these could be signs of hearing loss. "When you lose your hearing, your ear is less able to dampen loud noises, which may cause your ears to hurt around loud noises," says Dr. Pincus. "The pain is hard to describe, but it's somewhere between sharp shooting and a dull ache."
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You're constantly saying "what?"
If you have trouble hearing in places with lots of background noise, like a restaurant, don't blame it on the loud chatter or poor acoustics. "A good functioning ear can pick up what you want to hear in a noisy room. If you can't, that could be one of the early signs of hearing loss in the upper ranges," says Dr. Pincus. (This is how you really should be cleaning your ears–and there's no Q-tip required.)