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Mild Hearing Loss and What You Should (or Shouldn’t) Do About It

As an Audiologist, I often find that when explaining the results of a hearing test, if the patient hears the word mild they often instantly decide that it is nothing to be bothered about. This is why a full and detailed explanation of the hearing loss is so important because a mild hearing loss can cause a wide variety of difficulties (which is probably why the patient has made a visit to us in the first place!). Keep reading to hear about these difficulties and we will talk about what you should and should not do to combat them.

What is Mild Hearing Loss?

When describing hearing loss, hearing care professionals will ideally stay away from giving overall percentages and instead look at the hearing thresholds on an audiogram between the frequencies 500hz and 4Khz. When these thresholds fall between 20-39dB(HL) on the audiogram, this is a mild hearing loss. The audiogram is the chart used to plot the results of pure tone audiometry. Here are three examples of mild hearing loss:

  • Sloping mild hearing loss – This is a typical example of the early stages of wear and tear or what is sometimes known as an “age-related” hearing loss.
  • Flat mild hearing loss – A flat loss can also be caused by wear and tear but may have other causes.
  • Reverse slope mild hearing loss – This shape of hearing loss is usually caused by an issue relating to the conductive pathway of sound vibrations before reaching the cochlear.

Effects of a Mild Hearing Loss

The effects of a mild hearing loss can be very different from person to person. This is because it will also depend upon how well a person can process the sounds that they can hear, this is a brain function and not an ear function! However, listed here are the difficulties a person with a mild hearing loss may encounter.

  • Difficulty following soft voices or when the speaker is turned away. Depending on the shape of hearing loss, some speech sounds will be heard more easily than others. For example, a person with a mild sloping loss will hear the vowel sounds more easily than the beginning and ends of words and so speech can often sound mumbly or lacking in clarity. Especially when the speaker has a soft voice, it can be more difficult to fill in the gaps that are not heard. If the speaker is turned away, there is no access to the visual clues of the lips that everyone can “read” to some degree. The brain has to work hard to fill in the gaps, and it cannot do it well all of the time: “What is the time?” “Yes, I would like some wine!”
  • Difficulty hearing over a distance – The further a voice has to travel, the quieter it will be when heard by the intended recipient. If the recipient has a mild hearing loss, there will be more speech sounds that they miss out on, therefore finding conversations that happen across rooms or listening to a speaker in a large room difficult.
  • Struggling in a group conversation – In a group conversation, it cannot be easily predicted who will speak at what moment. If the conversation is fast-paced, people with a mild hearing loss will not always be able to keep up if they cannot access visual clues quickly enough to fill in any gaps in the speech that they might miss.
  • Difficulty in background noise – When there is competing environmental noise, like in a restaurant or cafe, the brain has to work harder to discriminate the wanted signal (speech) amongst the noise of the room. As low-frequency sound travels better than high-frequency sound, there is often a low “hum” of babble which those with a mild hearing loss will hear, whilst being unable to hear the clarity sounds of the person they want to hear. If the hearing loss is asymmetrical, i.e. one ear is better than the other, hearing in background noise can be more problematic as the sufferer will find it difficult to localise sound.
  • Being unable to follow the television at a reasonable volume – To compensate for the loss of sound, people with a mild hearing loss will often increase the volume of the television or radio. This can cause conflict in the home environment.

Signs of a Mild Hearing Loss

It is important to remember that it may not always be the individual with a mild hearing loss that notices it in themselves first – it could be a partner, family member or friend. Here are some of the signs to look for:

  • Having the television slightly louder than others would have it.
  • Asking for repetition noticeably frequently.
  • Mishearing elements of conversation and responding inappropriately.
  • Becoming quiet in social environments.

What can I do to treat it?

Unless the hearing loss has a conductive element (e.g. glue ear) then it is unlikely that the hearing will return to normal on its own or with medical/surgical intervention. An audiologist will be able to explain more about the type of hearing loss a person has and whether a referral to an ENT consultant would be appropriate. If not, however, hearing aids can provide the amplification needed to combat a mild hearing loss. For those living in the UK, hearing aids can be accessed via the NHS if the individual meets the local provision criteria.

Some areas are sadly not funded to provide hearing aids to individuals with mild-moderate hearing losses. This is frustrating to both the individual and the NHS Audiologist as they will know how much benefit is to be gained. Anyone can access hearing aids of a wider range of styles and technology levels privately. Of course, if you live in Leicestershire, Warwickshire or Northamptonshire, we will always recommend you come to visit us at one of our Hear4U branches to see how we can help you. Private hearing care has become more accessible since the introduction of interest-free finance plans, which we are proud to offer so that we can help more people.

A mild hearing loss should not be ignored for two main reasons. Firstly, the longer a hearing loss is left unaided, the longer it is likely to take to get used to hearing aids when they are fitted. Hearing decline and hearing aids are independent of one another i.e. a person’s hearing will decline as they get older regardless of whether they are wearing hearing aids. However, the more sound that has to be “given back”, the longer it will take for a new user of hearing aids to get used to that amplification.

Secondly, hearing loss affects more than just the individual with it, it has an effect on the people they communicate with most. Usually, this is a partner and/or other members of the same household. The communication difficulties associated with a mild hearing loss can often cause havoc in the personal relationships and family dynamic, with frustration and impatience levels being high. Seeking to right the cause of these issues can be done by addressing a hearing loss.

So, if YOU have a hearing loss and it is bothering you enough to have been to have it tested, do not let the word mild stop you from starting your journey to better hearing.