These days, we know plenty about all the environmental causes for hearing loss.
From exposure to loud noises to certain medications, it’s far more common knowledge of the ways to prevent hearing loss.
Now the focus has shifted to a much smaller scale: genetics.
The short answer to the question “Is hearing loss genetic” is “it can be, but isn’t always.”
Advances in molecular biology have made it possible to identify and intervene much earlier in instances where hearing loss can be driven by genetic factors.
Before we dive into that, let's start with a quick overview of how hereditary conditions are passed down.
Genetic Disorders 101
Genes are the “instruction manual” for building proteins in the body. From there, protein forms the building blocks from which all other cells are produced.
Genetic disorders then, are issues with these instructions. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) defines a genetic disorder as “a disease caused in whole or in part by a change in the DNA sequence away from the normal sequence.”
Basically, it’s like reading a set of IKEA instructions wrong and ending up with a table where the legs are sticking out of the top instead.
Hereditary Conditions that Cause Hearing Loss
Hereditary conditions that cause hearing loss are usually categorized in multiple ways: syndromic and nonsyndromic with these issues being congenital versus hereditary.
Syndromic vs Nonsyndromic
According to research, more than 400 genetic syndromes that include hearing loss have been described that are syndromic. Syndromic hearing loss involves malformations of the external ear, other organs, or with medical problems involving other organ systems. In other words, hearing loss is just one part of a larger puzzle.
Nonsyndromic hearing impairment, meanwhile, stands on its own and isn’t tied to any other larger disorder or disease though there may be some structural issues with the middle and inner ear.
Hereditary vs Congenital Conditions
Congenital and hereditary both fall under the umbrella of genetic diseases.
Most congenital hearing losses are a sensorineural hearing loss which means that they are issues with the inner ear and auditory nerve. In addition to genetics, other causes of a congenital hearing loss include:
- Maternal infections (eg rubella)
- Premature birth
- Low birth weight
- Birth injuries
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
- Drug use while pregnant
- Maternal diabetes
While congenital directly specifies that the disorder is present at birth, hereditary hearing loss can occur at any point during the lifespan. Because of the amount of things thatinvolved, there isn’t exact data available.
Boston Medical notes that “inherited genetic defects are just one factor that can lead to hearing loss and deafness”, with trauma, medication, and environmental factors also playing a huge part in developing hearing loss.
How to Treat Hearing Loss
Whether it’s genetic or environmental, treating hearing loss comes down to two pieces: the type and the severity of hearing loss.
There are three types of hearing loss, conductive, sensorineural, and mixed, each with their own potential treatment options.
Treating Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss involves issues with sound passing through the outer and middle ear. This type of hearing loss may be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause.
Potential treatment options include removing the obstruction or repairing damage to the outer or middle ear.
Treating Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss is an issue with the inner which includes the vestibule, cochlea, and semicircular canals.
While sensorineural hearing loss is permanent, there are plenty of treatment options available.
The use of hearing aids is one (noninvasive) solution to compensating for sensorineural hearing loss which can drastically improve your quality of life.
Treating Mixed Hearing Loss
Mixed hearing loss is exactly like it sounds: a mix between sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
Because this involves damage to multiple areas of the ear, treatment will often involve a combination of options.
Genetic disorders can be scary as it feels like the power is completely out of your hands.
There are myriad options for treating hearing loss that fit your needs, lifestyle and budget.
The best first step (and the one we always recommend): schedule an appointment with an audiologist today!