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Hearing Impairment: Deaf and Hearing Loss Information

  • Synopsis: Last Revised/Updated: 2017-05-03 - Information on hearing and deafness including common auditory system conditions and sign language communication.


Hearing is one of the traditional five senses. It is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations via an organ such as the ear. The inability to hear is called deafness. A hearing impairment or hearing loss is a full or partial decrease in the ability to detect or understand sounds. Caused by a wide range of biological and environmental factors, loss of hearing can happen to any organism that perceives sound.

Hearing loss, deafness, hard of hearing, anacusis, or hearing impairment, is defined as a partial or total inability to hear. In children it may affect the development of language and can cause work related difficulties for adults. Hearing loss is caused by many factors, including: genetics, age, exposure to noise, illness, chemicals and physical trauma.

Deaf Culture: Describes the social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are affected by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as "big D Deaf" in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d.

Hearing loss can also be classified based on which portions of the hearing system (auditory system) are affected. When the nervous system is affected, it is referred to as sensorineural hearing loss. When the portions of the ear that are responsible for transmitting the sound to the nerves are affected, it is referred to as conductive hearing loss.

A sensorineural hearing loss is due to insensitivity of the inner ear, the cochlea, or to impairment of function in the auditory nervous system. It can be mild, moderate, severe, or profound, to the point of total deafness. This is classified as a disability under the ADA and if unable to work is eligible for disability payments.

There are two main types of hearing loss.

Hearing loss is categorized by its severity and by the age of onset.

Two persons with the same severity of hearing loss will experience it quite differently if it occurs early or late in life. Furthermore, a loss can occur on only one side (unilateral) or on both (bilateral).

Hearing impairment may be ranked as mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe or profound:

Hearing loss can be inherited.

Both dominant gene and recessive genes exist which can cause mild to profound impairment. If a family has a dominant gene for deafness it will persist across generations because it will manifest itself in the offspring even if it is inherited from only one parent. It is estimated around half of all deafness and hearing impairment can be prevented.

People who are severely deaf rely a lot on lip-reading, even with a hearing aid.

Profoundly deaf people can also use sign language to communicate. Hearing impaired persons with partial loss of hearing may find that the quality of their hearing varies from day to day, or from one situation to another or not at all. They may also, to a greater or lesser extent, depend on both hearing-aids and lip-reading.

Any form of communication between people is a two way street. It is very important then to determine how a deaf person prefers to communicate. There are a number of options available to them such as sign language, lip reading or using text. There will be a way of making a connection. It may sometimes be difficult or awkward but the effort is well worth it.

The commonest cause of hearing loss is aging, and three-quarters of people who are deaf are aged over 60. At around 20 years of age, our hearing starts a gradual decline. Higher frequencies are usually the first to go. This age-related hearing loss is normal and doesn't lead to total loss of hearing. Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) typically begins with the loss of higher frequencies, so that certain speech sounds - such as 's', 'f' and 't' - end up sounding very similar. This means the older person can hear, but not always understand.

Many people who are deaf consider spoken language their primary language and consider themselves "hard of hearing". How one classifies themselves relative to hearing loss or deafness is a very personal decision and reflects much more than just their ability to hear.

Hearing Impairment Awareness Dates

Gold and silver awareness ribbonThe Gold and Silver awareness ribbon represents hearing impairments including Tinnitus and Meniere Disease.
Canada - May is Speech and Hearing Awareness Month.
USA - October Is National Audiology Awareness Month. AAA is dedicated to increasing public awareness of audiology and the importance of hearing protection.
UK - September is Hearing Awareness Month

Quick Facts: Hearing Loss

Statistics: Hearing Impairment

60% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have hearing loss
Source: HHF http://hearinghealthfoundation.org/statistics

Hearing loss has doubled in the past 30 years in the U.S.
Source: HHF http://hearinghealthfoundation.org/statistics

48 million Americans (20% of population) have hearing loss.
Source: HLAA http://hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss

Profound, early-onset deafness effects 4--11 /10,000 children
Source: ASHA http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Prevalence-and-Incidence-of-Hearing-Loss-in-Children/

30 million Americans are regularly exposed to hazardous sounds
Source: ASHA http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Prevalence-and-Incidence-of-Hearing-Loss-in-Adults/

738,000 in U.S. have severe to profound hearing loss; 8% are under age of 18
Source: ASHA http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/Prevalence-and-Incidence-of-Hearing-Loss-in-Children/

One in three Americans age 65+ has hearing loss. Half of Americans 75+ has hearing loss.
Source: HLAA http://hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss

There are no accurate statistics regarding the ASL signer population, some project it at 250,000 to 500,000.
Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Sign_Language

60% of people with hearing loss are in the workforce or educational settings. Many older Americans are staying in the workforce longer.
Source: HLAA http://hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss

The U.S. population is aging. The number of Americans ages 65+ is projected to double in the next 25 years, from 46 million to about 72 million.
Source U.S. CDC https://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/state-aging-health-in-america-2013.pdf

80% of people who could benefit from hearing aids do not use them. High cost and negative association with old age and appearance are primary factors in not using hearing aids.
Source: HLAA http://hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss

Latest Hearing Loss and Deafness Publications

1 : Restoring Hearing for Millions of Elderly and Others with Hearing Loss : University of Southern California.

2 : Sustaining a Career After Acquired Hearing Loss : Oregon State University.

3 : Second Cause of Hidden Hearing Loss Identified : Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan.

4 : Auditory Cortex of Hearing and Deaf People Nearly Identical : Harvard University.

5 : Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL): Causes & Prevention : Thomas C. Weiss.

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