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Prevalence of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is the third most common condition in the US. Approximately 48 million Americans – 20% of the population – experience some degree of hearing loss. Hearing loss may affect anyone, at any age. Even so, older Americans experience hearing loss in higher rates: one in three people over age 65 and 50% of people over age 75 experience some degree of hearing loss.

In recent years, due to the increased use of personal electronic devices, we have seen a rise in hearing loss in younger generations. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss. Nearly 50% of people age 12-35 are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices.

In the American workforce, 60% of people experience hearing loss. The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that approximately 30 million people in the United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous noise. OSHA reports that noise-related hearing loss has been one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the last 25 years. Similarly, 60% of veterans returning from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan report cases of hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing of the ears).

Types and Causes of Hearing Loss

There are three types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural, and mixed.

Conductive hearing loss affects the outer and middle ear areas, and interferes with the ear’s ability to receive and amplify sound. Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems with the ear canal, ear drum, middle ear, and ear bones such as the malleus, incus, and stapes. Ear infections and fluid in the middle ear (from colds) may lead to conductive hearing loss, as well as poor Eustachian tube function. Obstructions in this area of the ear, such as impacted earwax or benign tumors, may also cause conductive hearing loss. Certain congenital conditions cause hearing loss as well.

Sensorineural hearing loss affects the inner ear, specifically the process by which sound waves are translated into neural signals registered by the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss may occur due to aging (presbycusis), noise-induced hearing loss (exposure to loud noises), certain kinds of ototoxic (ear poisoning) medication, head trauma, virus, disease, or hereditary hearing loss that runs in the family. Inner ear hair cells, responsible for translating sound waves into neural signals, may become damaged over time, due to exposure to loud noise, or ototoxicity. They do not regenerate once they are damaged, which causes permanent sensorineural hearing loss.

Mixed hearing loss is a combination of the above two types, affecting more than one part of the ear.

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On a simple, daily level, the consequences of untreated hearing loss become clearer as hearing loss worsens. Hearing loss interferes with our ability to recognize speech, which in turn affects our ability to communicate and connect with the people and the world around us. As such, people with untreated hearing loss are at higher risk of depression, stress, and anxiety, as well as social isolation.

Studies have been conducted on the medical consequences of untreated hearing loss. Johns Hopkins University has found potential links between untreated hearing loss, cognitive load, and an increased risk of dementia. Untreated hearing loss has also affected a person’s earning power and increased the risk of accidents and hospitalizations.

Despite these many physical and psychological consequences, it still takes an average of seven years from the time a person first notices changes in their hearing until they decide to seek treatment. Hearing specialists note the importance of testing one’s hearing ability and treating hearing loss as soon as possible, so as to not increase the negative impacts on one’s health and well-being.

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