Hearing Loss - The Invisible Disability

In our previous blog, we discussed some of the signs of hearing loss; difficulty hearing children or female voices, asking for frequent repetition, difficulty hearing in background or competing noise, and turning up the volume of the radio or tv. 

Wait, what?  There’s more?  If there are so many signs and symptoms of hearing loss, how the heck do we miss it? 

Hearing loss is often referred to as the invisible disability.  You typically cannot tell if someone is struggling to hear just by looking at them.  Since most hearing loss deteriorates gradually over time, it can sneak up on us, so even those with hearing loss don’t realize it until it is a significant disability.  It is important to recognize the signs of hearing loss so that it can be treated. As with any health issue, early intervention is key. 

Ringing in the ears.  What causes ringing in the ears or tinnitus (tih-NITE-us or TIN-uh-tus?)  We don’t fully understand what causes tinnitus, but it has been linked to many causes such as medications, wax, head injuries and noise exposure.  It is commonly associated with hearing loss. Tinnitus is often described as a ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping or roaring that can be present in one or both ears.  It can be constant or intermittent.  Tinnitus lasting more than 6 months is considered chronic tinnitus.  There is no cure for tinnitus, nor a treatment that works well for everyone.   

Given that tinnitus has such a strong association with hearing loss, identifying and treating the hearing loss is typically the first step, and successful for many.  The hearing aid cannot cure tinnitus.  When we fit hearing aids, we are increasing the volume of the world around you, speech sounds and environmental sounds, according to your specific hearing loss.  This helps to mask the ringing or buzzing in the ears, making tinnitus easier to ignore.  While we are not eliminating tinnitus, hearing aids can be a very effective tool in improving hearing and reducing the effects of tinnitus.   

If you suffer from tinnitus, it is important that you report this to your Family Physician and your Audiologist. 


Difficulty hearing on the telephone.  This is a common complaint, especially for those with significant hearing loss.  I know from my many years of working at the SaskTel Telmart during University (thank you, SaskTel!) telephones have a very limited frequency range of approximately 300 Hz to 3 kHz.  The frequency range of the human voice is 50 Hz to 8 kHz.  Those with normal hearing will typically do quite well on the telephone.   It is easy to see how a person with a hearing loss could struggle.  For many, the telephone is an important link to friends and family.  As mobility issues arise, the weather turns cold and icy, the telephone allows us to stay connected to anyone from anywhere.  This is especially important as staying connected helps prevent social isolation.   

Fortunately, technology is improving.  Facetime allows for the vital visual cues that we miss on the phone, filling in some of the gaps.  We have telephones with amplifiers, apps that can turn speech to text, and newer telephone systems with extended frequency range.  Hearing aids offer great benefits on the phone, whether you are using Bluetooth technology, or just enjoying the much-improved compatibility between the two technologies.  The days of removing your hearing aid to visit over the phone are long gone! 

When you call someone, and they answer with the TV blaring in the background, remind then that turning the tv down or off while you visit will make it easier for them to hear.  And maybe suggest that it might be time to get their hearing tested. 

Auditory fatigue.  It is exhausting to have to work to hear.  Listeners with hearing loss must allocate more cognitive resources to listening then listeners without hearing loss.1  Our brain can only do so much at a time.  When we must use more brain power or cognitive resources to listen, there are fewer cognitive resources available for other tasks such as memory.  “Mom, I told you yesterday at lunch that you were invited to Megan’s baby shower.”  “Nope, nobody invited me to the shower….!” 

When we have normal hearing, our auditory system functions well and the processing of information is easy.  When we have hearing loss, there are gaps in the system and the brain must work harder to fill in those gaps so that understanding takes place.  Think of playing Hangman with seven blank spaces compared to seven spaces with five spaces filled in. The more information that reaches the brain, the easier it is to process, understand, and remember.   

When there is hearing loss that is untreated, the brain must work harder, and that is exhausting.  Common signs of listener fatigue are increased stress, low energy, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating and mood changes.   

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) untreated hearing loss in adults is a growing national epidemic3.  On average, adults diagnosed with hearing loss will wait between 7-10 years to seek treatment.  We would never do this with a diagnosis of high blood pressure, or diabetes, or even vision.  In our next blog, we will discuss the ramifications of untreated hearing loss, and why sooner is better.