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Description of Hearing Loss

Did you know…

  • 500 million people in the world experience hearing loss.
  • Hearing loss is the number one disability, as well as the most preventable disability in the world (SHHH, 2002).
  • 30% of adults over 65 years of age experience handicapping hearing loss (Weinstein, 2003).
  • Only 5 million of those individuals with hearing loss actually use hearing aids (SHHH, 2002).  That's a lot of people who could be receiving help for their hearing loss, but aren't.  Hearing aids are not covered by Medicare so paying for an aid is often a problem.  For more information about funding for assistive technology read Informed Consumer's Guide to Funding Assistive Technology at http://www.abledata.com/abledata_docs/funding.htm.
  • Many people don’t wear hearing aids because they won’t acknowledge their hearing impairment.  Some people are embarrassed to wear an aid, even though hearing aids today are very small and can be inconspicuous.
  • Both former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were fitted with hearing aids while they were in office.

Due to loud workplaces, loud music, and loud recreational equipment, people are losing hearing at a younger age then they did 30 years ago.  People who have been frequently exposed to loud noises from factories, construction equipment, power tools, lawn mowers, guns, planes, or loud music are at risk of suffering from age related hearing loss at an earlier age than those not frequently exposed to loud noises.

What is hearing loss?

Individuals who are hard of hearing experience a partial or moderate loss of hearing.  This loss can be caused by a number of things, such as malformation of the ear, disease processes, fluid in the ear, impacted wax, exposure to loud noises, or the aging process.  There are three types of hearing loss:  Sensorineural, Conductive, and a combination of Conductive and Sensorineural.  This resource focuses on age-related or Sensorineural hearing loss.

Sensorineural hearing loss is damage to the inner ear or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain.  The cilia in the inner ear that translate sound waves into nerve impulses are damaged.  It is a permanent loss that cannot be corrected and happens to all of us as we age.  When hearing loss is caused by age, it is referred to as presbycusis.
Presbycusis presents itself in a similar pattern for every person.  People begin by losing hearing in the high pitches first and then losing it in the mid and low pitches.  It usually affects both ears to the same degree, beginning gradually and becoming increasingly worse over time.

Background noise is mostly made up of low-frequency noise.  Because seniors hear low frequencies better than high frequencies, they are better able to hear all of the noise but less able to pick out the important part of a conversation over the noise.  When a person has a hearing loss caused by age (presbycusis), the person often complains that it sounds as if people are mumbling.  A typical complaint is "I could hear if only people spoke more clearly."

Presbycusis can be helped with a hearing aid, but unfortunately four out of five Americans with hearing loss do not use a hearing aid (National Academy on an Aging Society, 1999).  Many people don't wear hearing aids because they won't acknowledge their hearing impairment.  Some people are embarrassed to wear an aid, even though hearing aids today are very small and can be inconspicuous.

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