Living with mild hearing loss

When it comes to health concerns, including hearing loss, people often wonder: how bad is too bad. How serious does a condition need to be before it goes from being an annoyance to something that requires medical attention? If you have mild hearing loss, you may think it's not serious and can be ignored, at least for now.

Close up of man's ear with hand cupped behind it
The effects of mild hearing loss should not
be underestimated.

Mild hearing loss is defined by hearing healthcare professionals as hearing thresholds on an audiogram that are between 26 and 40 decibels (dB) across certain frequencies or pitches. Having a hearing loss doesn't just mean sounds aren't loud enough. Oftentimes, it means sounds aren't clear enough either. People with mild hearing loss often notice that they can hear but they can't understand conversations clearly. 

If you have mild hearing loss, the most difficult sounds of speech - consonant sounds like "f" and "th" or "k" and "p" - can be lost during a conversation. That means it will be difficult for you to clearly distinguish between words. For example, the word "death" may sound like "deaf." Throw in some poor room acoustics, background noise that is distracting or a soft-spoken conversation partner, and even a mild hearing loss can pose major challenges.

Perceived handicap

So, if you know you have mild hearing loss or you are beginning to notice symptoms of hearing loss, how do you know if it's time for treatment with hearing aids? The short answer is that it depends.

Hearing loss isn't always black and white. If you were to compare two people with identical hearing test results and the same mild hearing loss, one might report significant difficulty in their everyday life while the other barely notices the hearing loss at all. This is sometimes called "perceived handicap," and according to a study in Ear and Hearing, self-perception of hearing handicap is the main factor in the decision to pursue treatment with hearing aids. 

Perceived handicap can be high for some people with mild hearing loss for reasons that are not well-understood. One factor is lifestyle and communication demands. For instance, someone who has frequent visits with family and friends and enjoys spending time at restaurants or the theater may feel a mild hearing loss puts them at a big disadvantage, so this person may have a high perceived handicap. On the other hand, someone who lives a less active lifestyle where socializing is infrequent may simply want to hear their favorite TV programs without straining. They may feel their mild hearing loss barely affects them. Other less obvious factors that contribute to self-perceived handicap, according to the Ear and Hearing study, include marital status and overall health. 

Because no two hearing losses are alike, even when they appear identical on paper, only you know how yours is affecting you. Be honest with yourself and, chances are, your mild hearing loss is probably affecting you more than you care to admit.

When you have a hearing test, your hearing healthcare professional will not only be interested in your level of hearing, they will also ask you questions aimed at finding out how much trouble your hearing loss is giving you. Through a careful history and discussion, they can find out about your perceived handicap. Some providers even use a formal test, like a scored questionnaire, that will provide objective information about perceived handicap. You may not be ready for hearing aids yet, but it is important to keep a close watch on your hearing loss progression with the help of your hearing care provider. 

Hearing aids for mild hearing loss

People with mild hearing loss and high perceived handicaps are often good candidates for hearing aids. Hearing aid technology has come a long way, and today's devices are sleek, stylish and customizable to any degree of hearing loss. Hearing aids exist for every lifestyle and budget. 

There is good news for hearing aid wearers with mild hearing loss. First, you will have more choices of hearing aid types and styles available to you compared with someone whose hearing loss has progressed to the point of being severe to profound. You may be able to wear smaller hearing aids, too. Because your hearing aids don't need to put out as much sound, they will require less frequent battery changes compared to someone who needs powerful devices.

People who first discover a hearing loss wait an average of 7 years to seek help with hearing aids. During this time, the hearing loss progresses, and the brain "forgets" how to hear sound properly. People who procrastinate too long become less able to understand speech over time. Catching a hearing loss when it is mild gives you the best chance for success with hearing aids and rehabilitation now and in the future. 

Tips for coping 

Whether or not you are ready for hearing aids, there are other things that can help you in your daily life with mild hearing loss. 

  • Be your own best advocate. Work on getting comfortable with telling others about your hearing loss. Communicate assertively and with courtesy about your needs. Others will appreciate your efforts to hear what they are saying.
  • Try assistive listening devices (ALDs). There are a number of affordable accessories on the market today that can help you hear better in specific listening situations. For instance, TV Ears can make watching your favorite programs enjoyable again. Captioned phones can make it much easier to manage phone conversations. 
  • Talk to your boss. Being open about your mild hearing loss at work is important. Untreated hearing loss can affect your wallet, but making sure your co-workers understand how to best communicate with you will put you back on a level playing field. In addition, your employer is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make reasonable accommodations for you. Know your rights and speak up.
  • Learn what works for you. If you need the quietest table at that trendy new restaurant in town, ask the host for it. If you need your partner to get your attention before they speak, tell them. Arrive early at lectures and meetings so you can get a seat up front. Learning to live with mild hearing loss involves some experimentation, but knowing your needs will pay off at work and at play.
  • Fight fatigue. Though subtle, the effects of mild hearing loss can mean you're straining to hear whether you notice it or not. Over the course of a day, this can lead to mental fatigue and increased anxiety. Incorporate breaks in your day with silence or try short meditation breaks to get refreshed and refocused.

Get help

Even if you aren't ready for hearing aids, it is important to monitor the progression of your mild hearing loss. Get a baseline test with a hearing healthcare professional. Once you have a relationship established, you can decide together when you need ALDs, hearing aids or even medical intervention. Do it for yourself and your family, friends and colleagues.