University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Ruth A. Bentler, MA, PhD
Professor of Speech Pathology & Audiology
First Published: November 2000
Last Revised: March 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
It sounds hard to believe, but some people can damage their
hearing and not even know it. "You can experience hearing loss and
not be fully aware of it," says Dr. Ruth A. Bentler, University of
Iowa professor of speech pathology and audiology.
"Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them they have hearing
loss, because they haven't had problems communicating. What they
don't realize is that damage can occur at many different frequencies,
resulting in normal hearing for some sounds and hearing loss for
Hearing loss affects approximately 10 percent of persons in the
United States. The causes of hearing loss vary and often lead to a
gradual change in hearing sensitivity over a prolonged period of
time. "Presbycusis is the term given to hearing loss that occurs with
age," Bentler says. "Although some presbycusis is expected with the
aging process, it is probably due to a combination of factors,
including noise in work and play environments, stress level, and
diet." Bentler adds that people in the United States are particularly
vulnerable, since high levels of stress, noise, and fat consumption
are the cultural norm.
"What many people don't understand is that noise doesn't have to
hurt, or even sound too loud, for it to damage hearing," Bentler
says. "Some people have a greater sensitivity to loud sounds, so
activities such as listening to music, riding a motorcycle, or motor
boating could cause hearing damage."
Federal guidelines designed to regulate levels of noise exposure
are no guarantee against hearing loss. "The Occupational Safety and
Health Administration has developed guidelines for acceptable noise
exposure in the work environment, " Bentler says. "For about 95
percent of the population these guidelines protect hearing, but one
to five percent of the population are still susceptible to noise
damage at these levels." She adds that it is extremely difficult to
measure noise in environments where the intensity fluctuates.
Bentler cites several symptoms that can frequently accompany
hearing loss. A ringing and fullness in the ears and difficulty
understanding speech in a background of noise are usually indicative
of such damage.
Bentler recommends that people who have a family history of
hearing loss or are exposed to loud sounds get tested at least once a
year. People who experience difficulty communicating should also have
their hearing tested. "When someone needs statements repeated, it
might not be due to a lack of attention. It could mean the person has
a hearing problem," Bentler says.
Treatment for hearing loss doesn't always involve the use of a
hearing aid. The UI Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic offers
communication strategy counseling as well. "Counseling often entails
teaching people techniques to enhance their communication skills or
helping them learn how to reduce environmental noise," Bentler says.
"A hearing aid may not always be appropriate or necessary."