By Deborah L. Carlson, Ph.D.

Many people have questions regarding speech and hearing problems:

• What are the most common hearing and speech problems?
• Who treats them?
• What are the signs of hearing and speech problems?

First, let’s look at hearing problems. Over 30 million Americans have a hearing loss and for 80 percent of them, the loss is permanent. More than two-thirds of individuals with hearing loss are over 45 years of age. Hearing loss may be related to injury, illness or exposure to loud noise, or may result from the normal process of aging. A sudden or gradual onset may occur, depending on the cause. Signs of hearing loss include frequent requests to have words repeated, difficulty hearing or understanding conversation, frequent need to turn up the volume of the TV or radio and turning one ear toward the source of sound.

If you think you have a hearing problem, you should contact your physician and request a referral to an audiologist, a professional who specializes in the evaluation and rehabilitative treatment of hearing loss. The audiologist will explain your hearing loss and the difficulties you may experience. He or she will also make recommendations regarding effective communication strategies, hearing aids and assistive listening devices.

Difficulty with speech and language may also arise. Speech, language and swallowing disorders affect approximately 15 million Americans. In the adult population, some common communication problems include difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), difficulty expressing thoughts or understanding what others are saying (aphasia) and difficulty producing speech sounds (dysarthria). These difficulties are usually caused by stroke, head injury or illness.

Some signs of speech, language or swallowing problems that should be evaluated include speech or language that is difficult for others to understand, difficulty following commands without cues or gestures and frequent choking or coughing while eating.

Your physician can refer you to a speech-language pathologist to evaluate your speech or swallowing difficulties. The speech-language pathologist is a professional who specializes in evaluating communication skills and will make recommendations or provide treatment for enhancing those skills.

Both audiologists and speech-language pathologists hold master’s or doctoral degrees and are certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. They are licensed by the state and practice in settings such as hospitals, clinics, private practice and schools.
Deborah L. Carlson is an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and director of the Center for Audiology and Speech Pathology.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email