Although hearing loss is often associated with aging, newborns, children, teenagers, and young adults can also experience impairment to their hearing through accident of birth, illness, head trauma, or environmental causes. Healthy human ears can perceive an enormous range of sounds in terms of pitch and loudness. Hearing is the primary sense through which we learn speech and language. The ability to hear clearly from birth is extremely important with regard to normal development of speech and language skills, auditory processing skills, a sense of self, as well as normal emotional and psychological well-being and more.
As we age, our ears are exposed to a lifetime of noises such as lawnmowers, telephones, industrial machinery, leaf blowers, chain saws, industrial noise, hair dryers, weapons, and recorded and live music.
The most common type of hearing loss, called “sensorineural,” occurs when tiny hair cells within the inner ear (the cochlea) are damaged, and is associated with aging or noise exposure or both – usually occurring slowly over decades. Persons with high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss often note they can hear, but they cannot hear clearly. Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and in most cases there are no medical or surgical treatment options. Hearing aids are the primary treatment. In some situations, such as when hearing aids have not been beneficial, cochlear implants may be an option.
The second most common type of hearing loss, “conductive,” usually results from ear wax, fluid (such as from ear infections) or a foreign object blocking the ear canal.
The third most common type of hearing loss is “mixed” and involves both sensorineural and conductive hearing loss components.
Adults with mild hearing loss (between 26 and 40 dB) may hear reasonably well in one-on-one conversation, but will miss words and speech sounds when speech is quiet or when there is background noise present. Adults with moderate hearing loss (between 41 and 70 dB) miss a lot of speech sounds and telephone conversation. They often ask for repeats and often say, “What did she say?” Adults with severe hearing loss (between 71 and 90 dB) need hearing aids to perceive speech sounds almost all of the time. People with severe hearing loss will miss the vast majority of conversational speech and using telephones will be very difficult.
People with untreated hearing loss (people with hearing loss who do not wear hearing aids) experience a decreased quality of life. Untreated hearing loss has been shown to cause sadness, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and poor social relationships. People with untreated hearing loss may have a difficult time in their careers—often earning thousands of dollars less than their hearing peers. The difference in wages is reduced by half, when people wear hearing aids.
With hearing impacting so many aspects and quality of everyday life and wellness, it is important to have a hearing checkup regularly. During Hearing and Speech Awareness Month, if you or a family member exhibits symptoms of hearing loss, make an appointment for a checkup.