For many of us, hearing loss is just another part of getting older. It’s well known at this point that as we age, we start to slow down and change in a number of ways. Although everyone is unique, for many people, the aging process comes with decreased mobility and diminished sensory capacities, including hearing loss.
While researchers have long known that hearing loss is a part of aging, they have just recently discovered a new potential contributing factor to the development of age-related hearing loss. These findings, published recently by the University of Virginia School of Medicine could change how medical professionals detect early risk factors for developing age-related hearing loss in people around the world.
Researchers at the University of Virginia recently published a study in which they investigated a variety of genetic factors that might make some people more likely to develop hearing loss as they age. The focus of the study was on a small but important piece of the inner ear, known as the cuticular plate.
Until recently, almost all of the hearing loss related research on the inner ear focused on the hair cells, themselves, which are tiny little hairs that pick up sounds and vibrations from our environment and send them off to the brain for interpretation. Few, if any research up to this point, however, looked at the foundations of these hair cells – the cuticular plate.
The researchers from Virginia, however, made this plate a focal point for their research and what they found is pretty surprising. Essentially, the researchers learned that the cuticular plate, although small and often overlooked, is actually really important for the ability of the hair cell’s to pick up sounds and transmit the vibrations that happen within the cochlea – an organ in the ear. Moreover, the researchers found that issues with these plates can lead to progressive hearing loss.
What’s more interesting, however, is that the researchers also determined that there’s a specific gene – known as Lmo7 – that’s responsible for the long-term health of the cuticular plate. Thus, when the gene was blocked, mutated, or simply performing poorly, the plate’s structure deteriorated and overall hearing abilities suffered.
There are two main things we can take away from these findings, with respect to hearing health: one, that there are multiple parts of the inner ear that are vital for our hearing abilities, and two, that there are some genetic predispositions to hearing loss. Both of these findings can have major implications for future hearing healthcare related practice.
For starters, hearing healthcare professionals and researchers can do more research on the importance of the once overlooked cuticular plate to identify other potential sources of damage and hearing loss. Additionally, the identification of a gene that may contribute to hearing loss tells us that we may be able to do some genetic testing to determine what people are at risk for age-related hearing loss.
Early identification of people genetically predisposed to hearing loss can mean earlier interventions, earlier treatment, and overall better quality of life for this population group. Ultimately, while more research is needed to better understand the role of genetics in hearing loss, this study shows us that better treatments and a higher quality of life are on the horizon for people with age-related hearing loss.