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The Varying Degrees Of Hearing Loss In Adults And Children

Hearing loss is a very common problem although most of us don’t recognize it right away. Data from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) shows that 20% of Americans (about 48 million people) report some degree of hearing loss. At the same time, 15% of school-age children (ages 6-9) have a measurable hearing loss in at least one ear. Among adults, age is the strongest predictor for hearing loss with most cases being reported by those in the 60-69 age group.

The Connection Between Hearing Loss And Sound Measurement

There are three main types of hearing loss –conductive, sensorineural and mixed. While each of these have different causes (most of them preventable) other factors do determine an individual’s specific hearing loss. One of these is the degree of hearing loss.

Sound is all around us but when it comes to measuring hearing loss, we are mainly concerned with its loudness or intensity as well as its frequency or pitch. The loudness of sound is measured in decibels (dB) while pitch is measured in Hertz (Hz). Measured together, these two properties of sound can reveal the degree of hearing loss you experience in each ear.

Normal conversation takes place at 50-65 dB and some people with good hearing can hear sounds down to 15-20 dB (breathing and rustling leaves). Sustained exposure to sounds louder than 85 dB- the sound of a lawn mower- can cause permanent damage to your hearing. The quieter the sound, the longer you can safely listen to it.

A healthy human ear can hear frequencies ranging from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. When testing hearing ability, we concentrate on a range of 250Hz to 8000Hz since this covers the speech frequencies i.e. the most important range for communication purposes. In order to determine an individual’s degree of hearing loss, we test the softest sounds they can hear at different frequencies.

With constant exposure to loud noises, the special hair cells in the ear that help transmit sound to the auditory nerves and brain get damaged or broken, resulting in varying degrees of hearing loss. Any person who is unable to hear thresholds of 25 dB or better in both ears considered to have hearing loss.

Degrees of Hearing Loss

Here at Hearing & Balance Doctors of Utah, we classify the degrees of hearing loss according to their severity. These are, from the least to the most significant: mild, moderate, severe and profound.

Mild Hearing Loss

If you have mild hearing loss, you cannot hear sounds that are softer than 20-40 dB. This means you can’t hear soft sounds like a dripping faucet or a ticking clock. With mild hearing loss, you can follow one-on-one conversations very well in quiet environments but can have difficulty understanding some words when there’s background noise.

Children with mild hearing loss can hear speech but might have difficulty understanding some segments especially words with indistinct sounds or word endings. Such children miss a greater percentage of speech whenever there’s background noise e.g. in classrooms or outdoors.

Hearing aids are recommended for both children and adults with mild hearing loss as these will amplify quieter sounds, making them clearer.

Moderate Hearing Loss

People with a moderate degree of hearing loss cannot hear sounds lower than 40-70 dB. Left untreated, this hearing loss can significantly affect your life since you are unable to hear or follow normal conversations. You may think people are mumbling and you’ll tend to ask people to speak up or repeat themselves.

Children with moderate hearing loss may miss over 50% of speech and are at risk of developing limited communication skills characterized by limited vocabulary and unclear articulation of speech sounds.

More powerful hearing aids, bone conduction implants or middle ear implants are required to correct this.

Severe Hearing Loss

Those with this degree of hearing loss cannot hear sounds softer than 70-90 dB. With severe hearing loss, regular speech becomes inaudible and you even have difficulties comprehending loud speech. Instead, you tend to rely on lip reading to follow a conversation and therefore need to face those you’re conversing with.

Most sounds are inaudible to children with severe hearing loss, regardless of how close the speaker is to the child. Due to this, they may not develop speech and language skills without support from language and speech therapists.

In cases of severe hearing loss, even the most powerful hearing aids might be ineffective. Other options to explore include cochlea implants and middle ear implants. Children who get cochlea implants can often go on to understand speech sounds, eventually learning to speak and understand others.

Profound Hearing Loss

This is the most significant degree of hearing loss there is. With this kind of hearing loss, you cannot hear sounds lower than 91 dB, including loud sounds like fire alarms or trucks going down the road. People who suffer from this are considered very hard of hearing and often rely on sign language or lip-reading to communicate with others.

Children suffering from profound hearing loss cannot hear most environmental sounds and find speech to be inaudible. This means that the child will receive very little auditory information resulting in an inability to understand all speech sounds.

Hearing aids are mostly ineffective for profound hearing loss and the best solution may be a cochlea implant. Children with this hearing problem will need additional help to improve their language and speech. Specialized instruction in lip-reading or sign language might be necessary.

Determining The Degree of Hearing Loss

The best way to find out if you have any hearing loss is to get your hearing checked by a trained Doctor of Audiology. This medical professional will administer a series of diagnostic hearing evaluations and will then recommend an appropriate course of treatment.

Bear in mind that untreated hearing loss predisposes you to other health issues so it is recommended that you get your hearing tested regularly. The earlier your hearing loss is detected, the better the treatment outcome will be.

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