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Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Disorders

Doctor Examining Ear of Little Boy


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 currently has a sensory or communication impairment or disorder. 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 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 1 out of 110 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 7.5 million people in the United States have trouble using their voices.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
  • Some individuals with hearing loss who could benefit from a hearing aid choose not to wear one due to the high cost or the perceived stigma of wearing an aid.8, 9
  • 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.10

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.11

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.12


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

2Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network Surveillance Year 2006 Principal Investigators; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders. Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, United States, 2006. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2009 Dec 18;58(SS-10):1-20.

3Fact sheet: Statistics on voice, speech, and language [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; [cited 2010 April 14]. 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.

5Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). National healthcare disparities report, 2003. Rockville, MD: AHRQ; 2003.

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.

8Kent B, Smith S. They only see it when the sun shines in my ears: Exploring perceptions of adolescent hearing aid users. J Deaf Stud Deaf Educ. 2006 Fall;11(4):461-76.

9Johnson CE, Danhauer JL, Gavin RB, et al. The “hearing aid effect” 2005: A rigorous test of the visibility of new hearing aid styles. Am J Audiol. 2005 Dec;14(2):169-75.

10Van 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.

11National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). NIDCD strategic plan: FY 2009–2011 [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: NIDCD; 2008 [cited 2010 April 8]. Available from: [PDF - 180 KB]

12Bainbridge 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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