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Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Disorders

Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Disorders


Reduce the prevalence and severity of disorders of hearing and balance; smell and taste; and voice, speech, and language.


At least 1 in 6 Americans has or will have a sensory or communication disorder in his or her lifetime. Even when they are temporary or mild, such disorders can affect physical and mental health. An impaired ability to communicate with others or maintain good balance can lead many people to:

  • Feel socially isolated
  • Have unmet health needs
  • Have limited success in school or on the job

An impaired sense of smell or taste can lead to poor nutrition or the inability to detect smoke, gas leaks, or foods that are unsafe to eat.

Why Are Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Processes Important?

Communication and other sensory processes contribute to our overall health and well-being. Protecting these processes is critical, particularly for people whose age, race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, genetic background, or health status places them at increased risk. The Healthy People 2020 objectives are designed to ensure that all Americans, from birth through old age, will benefit from scientific advances in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of hearing and other sensory or communication disorders. For example:

  • One to 3 out of every 1,000 children is born with hearing loss. Through early diagnosis and intervention, these children can develop speech and language skills on schedule with their peers.1
  • Autism spectrum disorders, which often influence a child’s ability to use language, affect approximately 1 in 68 8-year-old children.2 Researchers are investigating better ways to predict risk for autism in hopes of offering earlier treatment.
  • Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, malnutrition, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis are accompanied or signaled by chemosensory (smell and taste) problems. Diagnosis of chemosensory disorders may lead to earlier, more effective treatment of related diseases and conditions.
  • Approximately 17.9 million adults in the United States (7.6%) report having trouble using their voices in the past 12 months.3 People in occupations that stress the vocal cords, such as teaching and singing, may need preventive and rehabilitative services.4
  • Substantial progress has been made in the development of alternative and augmentative communication devices that help people with severe disorders communicate.

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Understanding Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Disorders

Many factors influence the numbers of Americans who are diagnosed and treated for hearing and other sensory or communication disorders.

Social Determinants

  • A wide gap in overall health exists between people of higher and lower social and economic standings. For people of lower income, decreased access to routine and specialized health care adds to this disparity.5
  • Another factor is the age at which a person is diagnosed or receives intervention, such as for infants born with hearing loss.6 Nearly all U.S. states participate in programs to screen newborns for hearing loss. These programs support early and appropriate intervention services that help improve children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and academic growth.7
  • Most individuals with hearing loss who could benefit from a hearing aid choose not to wear one; commonly cited barriers to purchasing or using hearing aids include high cost and perceived stigma of wearing an aid.8
  • Unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use or long-term exposure to loud noise without hearing protection, increase the prevalence and severity of hearing loss and other sensory and communication disorders.9

Biological Determinants

Biological causes of hearing loss and other sensory or communication disorders include:

  • Genetics
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Sensitivity to certain drugs or medications
  • Injury
  • Aging
  • Age may influence treatment options. For example, children as young as 12 months old with severe hearing loss are now receiving cochlear (inner ear) implants.
  • As the Nation’s population ages and survival rates for medically fragile infants and for people with severe injuries and acquired diseases improve, the prevalence of sensory and communication disorders is expected to rise.10

Emerging Issues in Hearing and Other Sensory and Communication Disorders

Increases in blast exposure in combat situations have led to a dramatic rise in traumatic brain injury and ear damage in military personnel. These injuries have caused auditory disorders, such as hearing loss and tinnitus, and balance disorders, such as dizziness and vertigo. Noise-induced hearing loss may be reduced through the development of better ear-protection devices and emerging research into interventions that may protect or repair hair cells in the ear, which are key to the body’s ability to hear.

Researchers are also identifying the genetic components of many disorders, which may lead to earlier and more accurate diagnosis, classification, and long-term clinical intervention. Research is adding to the understanding of co-occurring conditions and the way the presence of 1 disorder may lead to diagnosis and treatment of another, such as diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease through testing of olfactory (smell) function. In addition, hearing loss may be a largely unrecognized complication of diabetes, which suggests that people with diabetes should be screened for hearing loss.11


1Moeller M. Early intervention and language development in children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Pediatrics. 2000 Sep;106(3):e43.

2Christensen DL, Baio J, Braun KV, et al. Prevalence and Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2012. MMWR Surveill Summ 2016;65(No. SS-3)(No. SS-3):1–23.

3Quick statistics on voice, speech, and language [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; [cited 2017 June 16]. Available from:

4Williams NR. Occupational groups at risk of voice disorders: A review of the literature. Occup Med (Lond). 2003 Oct;53(7):456-60.

52015 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report and 5th Anniversary Update on the National Quality Strategy. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; April 2016. AHRQ Pub. No. 16-0015.

6National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Communicating the need for follow-up to improve outcomes of newborn hearing screening. Bethesda, MD: NIDCD; 2001.

7Sininger YS, Martinez A, Eisenberg L, et al. Newborn hearing screening speeds diagnosis and access to intervention by 20 to 25 months. J Am Acad Audiol. 2009 Jan;20(1):49-57.

8National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. Washington, DC. 2016. The National Academies Press.

9Van Eyken E, Van Camp G, Van Laer L. The complexity of age-related hearing impairment: Contributing environmental and genetic factors. Audiol Neurootol. 2007;12(6):345-58.

10National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). NIDCD strategic plan: FY 2017–2021 [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: NIDCD; 2017 [cited 2017 June 16].

11Bainbridge KE, Hoffman HJ, Cowie CC. Diabetes and hearing impairment in the United States: Audiometric evidence from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999 to 2004. Ann Intern Med. 2008 Jul 1;149(1):1-10.

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