What does it mean to have a "mild" hearing loss?
You may have heard friends and family members describe their hearing loss in percentages—“I have a 20% hearing loss” or “I have a 50% hearing loss.” These percentage descriptions originated from formulas used by the military, Veteran’s Administration, and workman’s compensation organizations to describe the amount of disability caused by a certain degree of hearing loss. If your hearing loss resulted from an accident on the job, there is a formula that is used to calculate the percent disability pension for which you may be eligible. This is not your hearing loss expressed as a percentage. Rather, this formula calculates how much your degree of hearing loss supposedly impacts your ability to remain employed at full wages.
Audiologists and ear nose and throat physicians describe hearing loss on a graph with pitches along the top and volume levels along the side. Most people hear some pitches better than others, making the concept of a “percentage” of hearing loss less useful for them.
Degrees of hearing loss
When someone is professionally diagnosed with hearing loss, typically they’re told how significant the hearing loss is. The degree of hearing loss can range from “mild” to “profound,” but the question for most people is, “What does that mean for me?”
Below is a brief explanation of the degrees of hearing loss. Generally, the more severe the hearing loss, the harder it is for the person to hear.
“Mild” is the most common and under-diagnosed degree of hearing loss.
People with mild hearing loss usually can hear sounds louder than 40 decibels, but may have some difficulty hearing sounds below 40 decibels.
Here’s how that translates into real life: Soft speech is about 50 decibels. The humming of a refrigerator is about 40 decibels; a whisper is about 30 decibels; rustling leaves are about 20 decibels; and the sound of normal breathing is about 10 decibels.
So, someone with mild hearing loss may have minimal or no issues communicating in quiet, in one-on-one settings, or with only a couple of people. But they tend to have difficulty hearing softer environmental sounds as well as some conversations, especially in noisier environments, at a distance, in larger-group settings, or over the phone.
For instance, someone with mild hearing loss may only notice that they have trouble making out the conversation in certain situations—like in a noisy restaurant or when there is background music. Or, they may have trouble with certain words—typically with consonant sounds like “s,” “f,” or “th.” They may hear the word, but they may strain to distinguish it clearly or think something else that sounds similar was said. For example, someone with mild hearing loss may think the speaker said “hurt” when it was “shirt,” or “fun” when it was “sun,” and so on.
When hearing loss is related to noise exposure and aging, people tend to lose their ability to hear higher frequency (pitch) sounds first—like consonants in speech, which are higher pitched and softer in volume than vowels. This is challenging because consonants contribute much more than vowels to our understanding of speech.
People with mild hearing loss also may need to work harder to follow the conversation when a women or child is talking. They also may miss very high-pitched sounds, like higher-pitched birds or alarms.
The bottom line is that someone with unaddressed mild hearing loss may need to put more cognitive effort (higher levels of concentration) into following conversations in certain situations than they realize. The cumulative strain, especially for individuals with active professional, social, and civic lifestyles, can be significant and draining.
People with moderate hearing loss have trouble hearing sounds below 40 decibels, but also many sounds in the 41 to 60 decibels range. Sounds in the 41 to 60 decibels range include those heard in a quiet office, for example. Normal conversational speech averages between 50 and 65 decibels.
By the time someone has moderate hearing loss, the person often strains to keep up with conversation in most settings without the use of hearing aids or other assistive listening devices.
People with severe hearing loss have difficulty hearing most sounds below 61 decibels and many between 61 and 80 decibels. Sounds in the 61 to 80 decibels range include a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer (about 70 decibels) and a garbage disposal (80 decibels).
In day-to-day life, that means that someone with untreated severe hearing loss would have trouble following most conversations. They likely would have difficulty even hearing loud speech without amplification, such as hearing aids.
Someone with profound hearing loss can only hear very loud sounds—those above 81 decibels. A lawn mower and food blender are between about 85 and 90 decibels. A motorcycle, at about 25 feet away, is 88 decibels.
A person with a profound hearing loss probably would not hear any speech and only very loud sounds. They most often have difficulty hearing and following conversation even with hearing aids and often rely on lip-reading and/or sign language. Individuals with profound hearing loss may benefit from a cochlear implant, a device that is surgically implanted to substitute for the severely damaged cochlea.
Are you curious to know what your baseline hearing levels are? Call the office to set up a comprehensive hearing evaluation today! (410) 672-1233 (Odenton) or (410) 672-1244 (Severna Park).