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Millions of Americans have undiagnosed hearing loss

Millions of Americans have undiagnosed hearing loss. Millions more know they have hearing deficits but choose not to be treated.
by Ken Raymond Published: April 24, 2012
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Next time your wife accuses you of not listening, blame it on your ears. There's a good chance you have some hearing loss.

About 36 million Americans can't hear as well as they used to, and of those, only 25 percent get treatment, said Larry Engelmann, an Oklahoma City audiologist.

According to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, about 23 million older Americans with confirmed hearing loss don't use hearing aids.

“If you look at it on a hierarchy of problems ... it's lower on the health care totem pole because it doesn't hurt,” Engelmann said. “You're not sick with it. You generally don't die from hearing loss.”

Going untreated has consequences, though.

In work situations, people who can't hear clearly may misunderstand instructions, seem confused in meetings and have trouble communicating on the phone.

“People misread you as far as who you really are,” said Engelmann, who operates the Audiology Clinic, 3300 NW 56. “People with hearing loss can be misunderstood as inattentive, having selective hearing, being mad or not very smart and so forth.”

Such misperceptions can cost sufferers raises or promotions, potentially leading to significant income loss, he said.

Hearing loss can harm personal relationships, as well. There are gradations of hearing deficits: You may have no problem with one-on-one conversations but have difficulty hearing group discussions. You may be able to hear your husband in a quiet room but find him incomprehensible in a shopping mall.

That's because there's a natural drop-off in hearing acuity over time. This often manifests not as a general hearing loss but as declines in auditory perception of certain frequencies.

A dog whistle, for example, is pitched at a frequency so high that humans cannot hear it. A similar thing happens with hearing loss, Engelmann said. You may hear low frequencies well — typically loud vowel sounds — but have difficulty with high frequencies, the consonant sounds that constitute 20 percent of the volume of human speech but 60 to 80 percent of the clarity.

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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