What is hearing loss?

Find out all about hearing loss and how treating it helps to maintain good health.

Hearing loss is when a person has difficulty hearing sounds at a normal level.

One in five people worldwide has some form of hearing loss. Our ability to hear changes as we get older: about 1 in 10 people experience a hearing loss at the age of 60 years but 6 in 10 experience a hearing loss at the age of 90 years.*

Symptoms of hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be difficult to self-diagnose, because most symptoms of hearing loss develop gradually. Here are some of the main signs of hearing loss to watch out for.
Difficulty understanding others, especially in crowds or other background noise.
Frequently asking others to speak up or repeat themselves.
Regularly turning up the volume of the television or radio.
Withdrawing from conversations or avoiding social situations.

What causes hearing loss?

Most hearing loss occurs due to damaged hair cells in the inner ear, in the cochlea. These tiny hair cells detect sound waves. The cochlea often becomes less sensitive to sounds as we age, so we lose some sensitivity and our hearing deteriorates. 

In other cases hearing loss can arise from prolonged exposure to loud sounds, genetic factors, physical injury, disease or infection.

What problems can hearing loss cause?

Because hearing loss makes communication with others difficult, it can result in people doing fewer social activities. This can affect your quality of life and may lead to isolation.

Hearing loss is often a problem as people age. Because hearing loss makes it harder to socialise and remain active, people with hearing loss may do fewer of the things they enjoy and lack stimulation, and it may lead to loneliness. For these reasons, the earlier hearing loss is addressed and treated, the better.

Types of hearing loss

Sensorineural hearing loss

This is the most common type of hearing loss, and it occurs when the inner ear or the auditory nerve is damaged. It is permanent in most cases.

1. Auditory nerve
2. Inner ear

Conductive hearing loss

When sound is unable to pass from the outer ear to the inner ear, it’s called conductive hearing loss. This can be caused by a blockage such as an infection, or compacted earwax. It can also come from damage to the eardrum or ossicular bones in the middle ear. It can be treated medically in many cases.

1. Outer ear
2. Middle ear

Mixed hearing loss

This is when both sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss occur in the same ear. Treating the conductive component can help reduce the hearing loss, but the sensorineural hearing loss will most likely remain.

1. Cochlea

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*World report on hearing. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2021. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.