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What is deafness?
Deafness and hearing problems
Deafness can be mild, moderate, severe or profound. People with mild deafness have some difficulty following speech, mainly in noisy situations. Those with moderate deafness have difficulty following speech without a hearing aid.
People who are severely deaf rely a lot on lip-reading, even with a hearing aid. British Sign Language (BSL) may be their first or preferred language. Profoundly deaf people understand speech by lip-reading. BSL may be their first or preferred language.
Deafness can cause difficulty communicating and people who are deaf may be at risk of physical and social isolation. They are also at greater risk of accidents because they may not hear warning alarms and sirens.
In the UK, there are an estimated 9 million deaf and partially hearing people. About 688,000 of these are severely or profoundly deaf.
Test your hearing
* The RNID has an Information line.
Babies' hearing is tested as part of routine screening. About 840 babies are born with significant deafness each year in the UK. About one in 1,000 children is deaf at three years old and about 20,000 children aged up to 15 are moderately to profoundly deaf.
But the commonest cause of hearing loss is ageing, and three-quarters of people who are deaf are aged over 60.
From 40 years old, more men than women become hard of hearing. Among people over the age of 80, more women than men are deaf or hard of hearing, not because women are more likely to become deaf but because women live longer.
The external parts of our ear act like trumpets to collect sound. An organ known as the cochlea, deep within the inner ear in the skull, is responsible for converting the mechanical vibration of sound into electrical signals. These can then be detected by the brain.
It can result from damage or disruption to any part of the hearing system. Causes can range from wax blocking the ear canal and age-related changes to the sensory cells of the cochlea to brain damage.
Common causes of deafness in adults include presbyacusis (age-related hearing loss), side-effects of medication, acoustic neuroma and Meniere's disease.
Common causes of deafness in children include inherited conditions, infection during pregnancy, meningitis, head injury and glue ear.
Common temporary causes include earwax, infection, glue ear and foreign body obstruction.
Excessive exposure to noise is an important cause of a particular pattern of hearing loss, contributing to problems for up to 50 per cent of deaf people. Often people fail to realise the damage they're doing to their ears until it's too late.
Although loud music is often blamed (and MP3 players are said to be storing up an epidemic of deafness in years to come) research has also blamed tractors (for deafness in children of farmers), aircraft noise, sports shooting and even cordless telephones.
Vaccination against infections and avoiding excessive noise exposure reduces the risk of deafness. Removing wax and foreign bodies, and treating infections and glue ear helps improve hearing. Hearing aids, and for some people cochlear implants, enable hearing.
The ability to communicate is an essential part of living in human society. Advances in technology have led to an explosion of devices, gadgets and other methods to help people with hearing loss listen to and talk to others.
Older people are often reticent about using a hearing aid, perhaps reluctant to accept the physical effects of ageing, or concerned about the stigma of deafness or the rough deal that deaf people often get from society.
Modern hearing aids are a great improvement on those that were available just a couple of decades ago, but they rarely restore hearing to normal and don't suit or help everyone. Many people with hearing loss find it useful to develop other means of communication.
Even those with a mild 25 to 40 decibel loss find lip-reading useful, while people with severe hearing loss (70 to 95 decibels) often struggle to follow speech even with a hearing aid and may use other communication methods, such as lip-reading, sign language, sign-supported English, cued speech, speech-to-text, text phones and text messaging.
The National Deaf Children's Society has free publications to download.
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