You have the impression that the world around you is sounding too soft? People talking to you seem to mumble all the time? You might be affected by hearing loss.
How many people are affected by hearing loss?
Worldwide, more than 5% of the population, that’s about 466 million people, have a disabling hearing loss that impacts their quality of life. Among these, 34 million are children. Low-income countries are affected the most.
In high-income countries such as Germany or the US, around 15% of the adult population report hearing problems. 0.22% of the US population have a severe to profound hearing loss, i.e. they are considered “deaf” in colloquial terms.
Why am I affected by hearing loss?
- Sometimes, children are born with a hearing loss. This is referred to as a congenital hearing loss.
- The term acquired hearing loss is used if your hearing loss develops later in life.
- Children who are deaf before learning to speak have a prelingual hearing loss.
- People who lose their hearing after learning to speak have a postlingual hearing loss.
- If your hearing loss runs in the family, it is a hereditary hearing loss.
If you think your hearing is poor, you can take a hearing test. There are online tests available that indicate whether you have a hearing problem or not. If your hearing loss is manifested, see your hearing specialist – ENT doctor or audiologist – who will check which frequencies you are still able to hear and which ones you are missing out at different loudness levels. They will perform tests indicating where your hearing loss stems from and which part of the ear is affected. This will help identify why you are affected by hearing loss, what the cause of hearing loss is and what treatment options there are.
What causes hearing loss?
Hearing loss can have a variety of underlying causes:
- Very often, ear infections or other diseases of the ear lead to a hearing loss.
- Sometimes, hearing loss is the result of accidents such as skull fractures.
- Some severe illnesses such as meningitis or infectious diseases during pregnancy may also cause a hearing loss. In rare cases, tumors may lead to hearing loss.
- Malformations of the outer ear, middle ear or inner ear prevent the ear from working properly, resulting in hearing loss.
- Drugs may also lead to hearing loss. They are called ototoxic drugs and are sometimes given to treat serious illnesses.
- Noise can cause a hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss can develop over time, when permanent excess noise destroys the nerve cells in the inner ear (cochlea) permanently. Similarly, a one-time acoustic trauma may rupture the eardrum or destroy the nerve cells in the cochlea and lead to a noise-induced hearing loss.
- With age, many people develop a hearing loss. Termed age-related hearing loss or presbycusis, it can start as early as 40-50 years, when the high frequencies are slowly lost. Speech understanding is affected first, leading to difficulties in discerning between high-pitched consonants like f, s or d (fish/dish).
If you suspect that your hearing is deteriorating, you can take a quick online hearing test which will give you a rough picture. For a more detailed hearing assessment, see your audiologist or ENT doctor. They will discuss all the necessary steps with you in detail.
Affected by hearing loss: what happens?
Hearing loss often impacts your life. To what extent, whether it is just the radio or TV that is set at a louder volume or whether it is the inability to follow conversations depends on how serious your hearing loss is. The levels of hearing loss are categorized in degrees of hearing loss.
There are four degrees of hearing loss:
- Mild hearing loss
- Moderate hearing loss
- Severe hearing loss
- Profound hearing loss
The loudness of sound – or sound pressure level, to be exact - is measured in decibels (dB). In a hearing test, the audiologist checks how loud a sound has to be so you can hear it. The softest sound that you are able to hear, the hearing threshold, determines your degree of hearing loss.
Degree of hearing loss
- None/normal hearing: up to 20 dB
- Mild: 21 – 40 dB
- Moderate: 41- 70 dB
- Severe: 71 – 90 dB
- Profound: over 80 dB
Example: If you cannot hear sounds softer than 50 dB, you have a moderate hearing loss.
With normal hearing you can hear even soft sounds such as birds singing or leaves rustling.
People with a mild hearing loss face difficulties understanding soft speech and speech in background noise. Hearing aids can help people with a mild hearing loss to hear better.
With a moderate hearing loss individuals will have trouble understanding regular speech spoken at conversational level (which is usually around 60-65 dB). Depending on the cause of hearing loss, hearing aids, bone conduction implants or middle ear implants can help to hear better.
A severe hearing loss means a person can only hear very loud sounds such as the lawn mower or a siren. Speech at conversational level is difficult to understand with this degree of hearing loss. Depending on the cause of hearing loss, people with a severe hearing loss qualify for a cochlear implant.
Individuals with a profound hearing loss can only hear extremely loud sounds such as a plane taking off. They are unable to understand speech even when they are shouted at. Depending on the reason for hearing loss, people with a profound hearing loss are candidates for a cochlear implant which can remedy their hearing difficulties.
If you suspect a hearing loss, take a quick online hearing test for a first impression. Your audiologist or ENT specialist will do a thorough hearing assessment and discuss possible treatment options with you.