According to the American Academy of Audiology, approximately 36 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, which is the third most common health problem in the United States. Sarah Sydlowski, AuD, PhD, attributes the significant number of hearing loss cases in adults to a variety of causes, including aging, noise exposure and genetics.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
While hearing loss is always challenging, our modern environments make listening even more difficult.
“Our modern communication settings are very complex,” Dr. Sydlowski says. “Background noise and gadgets like cell phones makes it even more challenging to listen.”
Large crowds, noisy restaurants and other similar circumstances all contribute to the complex nature of our hearing environments. Echoes, background noise and loud music make conversation challenging. And television, cell phones, and video conferencing require that listeners depend on their hearing alone, because the speaker is not always visible.
With an influx of technological devices and complicated surroundings that regularly drown out sound even for those with normal hearing, how can we differentiate between hearing loss and plain misunderstanding?
Signs you have hearing loss
The most common form of hearing loss, which is typically due to aging and/or noise exposure, is often a gradual process, Dr. Sydlowski says.
“You may not even notice that you’re losing your hearing until it’s progressed significantly,” she adds. “Patients often report that they feel like they can hear, but they just can’t understand.”
This complaint is common because hearing loss related to noise exposure and aging typically affects the high-frequency regions of the inner ear first. The lower-pitch regions are important for volume of speech, but the high-frequency areas are important for understanding soft, high-pitched consonant sounds — sounds that start and end words and give them their meaning. As those sounds are lost, speech loses its clarity.
You may be experiencing hearing loss if you:
- Complain that people mumble
- Constantly ask people to repeat what they’ve said
- Avoid noisy rooms, social occasions or family gatherings
- Prefer the television or radio be louder than other people
- Have difficulty understanding people when you cannot see their faces
- Have difficulty understanding in a group conversation
- Are straining to hear conversation
- Experience ringing in the ears
A quality of life issue
Dr. Sydlowski says that even mild hearing loss can make a major impact on your quality of life.
“You may find that you’re very irritable and tired after a day spent trying to communicate; hearing loss requires that you focus more energy and concentration on listening, particularly in challenging environments like background noise or group settings,” she said in a recent interview on Fox 8’s New Day Cleveland.
These complex listening environments make understanding even more difficult because the noise can mask, or cover up, the already faint or missing soft consonant sounds of speech.
Some strategies can help individuals with hearing loss cope in these situations, although they are not a replacement for appropriate intervention. These techniques include:
- Moving away from background noise
- Making sure the speaker’s face is visible
- Asking people to speak more slowly and clearly (not louder!)
- Get information about the topic of conversation
What to do if you think you have hearing loss
If you think you’re losing your hearing, schedule an appointment with an audiologist. Audiologists evaluate, diagnose, treat and manage hearing loss and are the most appropriate specialist to see when you think you have a hearing problem. If appropriate, they may recommend a medical evaluation.
October, which is Audiology Awareness Month, is a great time to have your hearing checked and find out what you’ve been missing — and how you could be hearing and communicating better!