What is hearing loss?

1 in 6 adults experience
some degree of hearing loss.

Imagine dining in a busy restaurant. In the background there are dishes clattering, chairs scraping, people talking and laughing, and waiters rushing about. You are straining to follow what is happening at your table – and the effort of doing this is starting to make you feel more and more tired

Eventually, you start pretending you can hear. You nod, look interested and laugh with the crowd even though you didn’t get the jokes. You begin to feel left out. When you leave the restaurant you have a throbbing headache, disappointment and no plans to repeat the experience anytime soon.

Recognising the signs

Hearing loss differs from vision loss

As with the eye, the ear’s performance is affected by ageing. However, bad vision gradually makes reading harder as the letters get smaller, but hearing loss is different. 

Hearing loss can make certain syllables and sounds harder to hear. For example, high-pitched consonants like f, s and t are easily drowned out by louder, low-pitched vowels like a, o and u. This results in a person with hearing loss complaining that they can hear others are talking, but not what they are saying.

  • Normal hearing
  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment

Symptoms of hearing loss

If you can answer YES to one or more of these questions you might have hearing loss.

Locate your nearest hearing centre

1. Do you find that people around you mumble or speak softly?

2. Do you find conversations in restaurants or crowded places difficult? 

3. Do you often have to turn up the volume on your TV, radio or phone? 

4. Do friends and family members complain that they have to repeat what they say to you? 

5. Do you have to look at people’s faces in order to be able to understand what they are saying? 

6. Have you noticed that everyday sounds, like the twittering of birds, footsteps or the clock ticking, are gone?

What causes hearing loss?

Hearing loss is often associated with advancing age, but this is not always the case. Although it can strike people at any age, the condition most often appears after the age of 65. But it can also be caused by infections, injury or birth defects. 

Age-related hearing loss 
As we get older we may lose the ability to hear softer, high-pitched sounds. Birdsong is fairly easy to live without, but getting by when you lose some of the building blocks of speech is a far more challenging business.

Age-related hearing loss is caused by daily life-long wear and tear of the hearing system, and the most common symptoms are trouble hearing soft voices, as well as trouble hearing speech when background noise is present. Often, family members will notice age-related hearing loss before the person with the loss is really bothered by it

Noise-induced hearing loss
This is often caused by overexposure to excessive noise. It threatens the hearing of military personnel, police officers, construction workers, factory workers, farmers, dentists and kindergarten teachers – to name but a few. Rock concerts and MP3 players can also damage people’s hearing. Regular exposure to loud noise will accelerate hearing loss. That’s why it’s important to always wear ear protectors if you are exposed to excessive noise.

Types of hearing loss

The most common causes of hearing loss are age or overexposure to loud noise. But hearing loss can also be caused by infection, a head injury, cancer treatments, or taking certain medications.

Hearing loss can be caused by problems in the outer and middle ear or by damaged cells or fibres in the inner ear. Or it can be a combination of both.

Outer and middle ear hearing loss (Conductive)
Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in the outer and middle ear, which can prevent sounds getting through to the inner ear. The most common cause can be a build-up of wax in the ear canal, perforated eardrums, fluid in the middle ear, or damaged or defective middle ear bones (ossicles).

Inner ear hearing loss (Sensorineural)
This type of hearing loss happens when the delicate nerve fibres in the inner ear get damaged. This stops them transmitting sound properly. It can be caused by excessive exposure to noise, but the most common causes of sensorineural hearing loss are the natural processes of ageing. For some the sensory cells wear out already at the age of 50 whereas others have only negligible hearing loss even at the age of 80. This condition is permanent in most cases.

Hearing loss can affect your social life

Untreated hearing loss can cause you to withdraw from socialising because conversations take so much more mental energy. Left untreated, hearing loss can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.

See if some of these hearing loss related worries apply to you or if you suspect that they apply to a person close to you:

• I am often insecure when I am out as I don’t know where sounds are coming from 

• I often feel depressed and alone 

• I often get tired and need to rest after work 

• I have problems remembering

• I have problems recognising speech, especially in gatherings with other people 

• My hearing loss has decreased my quality of life 

• My hearing loss not only affects me, it also affects my family

It is important to seek help if you experience signs of hearing loss in yourself or a loved one.

Learn more in our support for relatives

  • How our hearing works

    We hear with our brain – not with our ears. Get to understand the normal hearing process

  • Getting help

    What to do when you suspect hearing loss, and the process of finding the right solution

  • Tinnitus

    What is tinnitus, why do some people get it, and what can be done to relieve the symptoms

  • Find a hearing centre

    A hearing care professional can test your hearing and devise a treatment that suits you