Grandmother wearing Philips HearLink and baking cookies with her grandchild

Understanding hearing loss

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Hearing problems can affect your social life. It can be challenging to connect with your surroundings, like engaging in a conversation in a busy restaurant or attending a live music concert. With a hearing loss you may experience that you avoid social situations and lose interest in activities that you once enjoyed. The impact of hearing loss on quality of life can be substantial. Fortunately, there is help available.

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Signs of hearing loss

Most hearing loss happens gradually, so you may not notice it for some time. Look out for these possible signs of hearing loss:

  • You may find yourself straining to hear conversation.
  • You may become tired from the effort required to listen.
  • You may need to turn the TV up louder than before.
  • You may notice that you have to ask people to repeat themselves.
  • You may feel that you can hear but cannot always understand what you hear.
  • It may seem like people sometimes mumble.

If you suspect that you have hearing loss, you are not alone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Report on Hearing, there are more than 1.5 billion people worldwide who suffer from hearing loss. Over 65% of adults above 60 years of age experience some degree of hearing loss.

What are the causes of hearing loss?

Hearing loss has many causes. The main cause of hearing loss is considered to be age-related: our hearing ability changes over time. This is a natural development as we grow older. Other hearing loss causes can be:

  • trauma or injury to the head
  • genetic factors
  • specific medical conditions or certain medications.

Hearing loss is also caused by ear damage from loud noise, such as:

  • prolonged exposure to excessively loud noise (noise-induced hearing loss)
  • a single exposure to a very loud sound (acoustic trauma).
A female audiologist looks into a young woman’s ear with an otoscope to seek causes of hearing loss.

How to treat hearing loss

If you suspect you might have hearing loss, the best thing you can do is to contact your general practitioner to rule out any medical causes of hearing loss. In most cases, they will then recommend that you see an audiologist, an ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) physician, or a hearing care specialist for further assessment.

During the appointment with a specialist, you will be asked questions related to your hearing, to help understand your hearing loss. You will then have a visual examination of your ears using an otoscope. This can help to identify causes of hearing loss, as it could be related to a blockage in the ear canal or an issue with your middle ear.


What types of hearing loss can occur?

  • Sensorineural hearing loss

    Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss, which is caused either by damage to the hair cells in the inner ear or to the auditory nerve. This includes both age-related and noise-induced hearing loss. There are treatments for this type of hearing loss, however, this type of hearing loss is permanent in most cases

  • Conductive hearing loss

    Conductive hearing loss is caused by a mechanical problem in the outer or middle ear such as ear wax, which blocks sound from getting to the eardrum. In many cases, this type of hearing loss is temporary, and the cause of the hearing loss can be treated medically.

  • Mixed hearing loss

    Mixed hearing loss results when there are components of both sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss present.

What happens during a test for hearing loss?

During a test for hearing loss, you will listen to a series of tones via headphones. You will be asked repeatedly to indicate when you hear them. This will result in a chart of your hearing, called an audiogram. Based on that audiogram, the hearing care specialist will be able to tell you at what frequencies and volume you are able to hear sounds. This ultimately determines if you have a hearing loss and to what degree.

An audiogram showing hearing ability in terms of sound volume (or intensity) measured in decibels and frequency in Hertz

The vertical axis of the audiogram represents the sound volume or intensity, which is measured in decibels (dB). The more one moves down the axis, the louder the sound becomes. Zero decibels at the top of the axis represents some of the softest sounds a person with normal hearing can hear. Red is the right ear and blue is the left ear.

The horizontal axis of the audiogram represents the frequency of sound and is measured in Hertz (Hz) . The frequency increases gradually the further one moves to the right along the axis. This can be compared to playing the low notes on the left side of a piano and then gradually moving to the right side where the notes become higher pitched.

How is the degree of hearing loss defined on a chart?

Hearing care specialists sometimes use a chart that is called the “speech banana”. This chart describes where the sounds used in everyday human speech occur on an audiogram. Showing the degree of hearing loss on a chart helps to explain how speech understanding is affected by hearing loss.

Chart with speech banana shows which sounds are heard at what frequency and loudness level, indicating degree of hearing loss

The degree of hearing loss that a person can have is usually categorized into five distinct levels.

How hearing aids can improve your quality of life

Spending time with our loved ones or on our hobbies can impact our lives positively. It is worth it to spend time treating hearing loss to hear better, so we have more energy to do what we love.

Animation of an older man wearing hearing aids watering yellow plants with his grandchild

Ever wondered what hearing loss might sound like?

Our hearing loss simulator lets you experience different sounds with different degrees of high frequency hearing loss. High frequency hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss.

3 tips to connect better with people who have hearing loss

In this article written by the Gottman Institute you can find helpful tips for how to better connect with and help your loved ones who have a hearing loss.