Hearing loss can be frustrating. It can make it hard to understand and follow a doctor’s advice, to respond to warnings and to hear doorbells and alarms. Not being able to follow a conversation can also make you feel left out and alone—especially during the holidays, when families and friends gather for dinners and other parties. When many people talk at the same time, it’s hard for those with hearing loss to understand what people are saying. But there are ways to treat hearing loss. The most common is to wear a hearing aid.
Hearing loss happens for many reasons. Some people lose their hearing slowly as they age. In fact, hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. According to a 2003 study, hearing loss is the third most common chronic illness in older Americans, behind high blood pressure and arthritis. Roughly 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those 75 and older have hearing loss.
Another reason for hearing loss may be exposure to too much loud noise—a condition known as noise-induced hearing loss. Many construction workers, farmers, musicians, airport workers, tree cutters and people in the armed forces have noise-induced hearing loss. Hearing loss can also be caused by ear infections, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumors and certain medicines.
If you think you have a hearing problem, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a specialist who will try to find out why you have hearing loss. He or she may also refer you to an audiologist, who can measure your hearing. Otolaryngologists and audiologists can work together to find a treatment that is right for you.
The most common treatment for hearing loss is a hearing aid, a small electronic device worn in or behind the ear. Hearing aids help make some sounds louder so that a person with hearing loss can listen, communicate and participate more fully in daily activities. Still, only 1 out of 5 people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one.
Researchers supported by NIH are working to improve hearing aid technology. They are exploring how to improve signals so that speech sounds are more realistic. And they are working to improve a hearing aid’s microphone so that it focuses on sounds coming from a specific direction and not background noises.
If your doctor recommends a hearing aid, you can read more about the most common styles, what to consider when purchasing a hearing aid and how to adjust to and care for one. See the links in the side box for more information.