Hearing impairment is one of the most common chronic health problems of elderly Americans. Although adverse effects on quality of life are thought to be considerable, they have not been rigorously evaluated. This study was designed to identify the types and extent of dysfunction experienced by elderly individuals with hearing loss, and to define the most appropriate measures for assessing this dysfunction. Elderly male veterans attending a primary care clinic were screened for hearing loss and had their quality of life assessed with a comprehensive battery of disease-specific and generic measures. Of 472 people who had their hearing tested, 106 had hearing loss. Hearing loss was associated with significant emotional (P = .0001), social (P = .0001), and communication (P = .02) dysfunction. Most individuals (66%) perceived these dysfunctions as severe handicaps even though audiologic loss revealed only mild to moderate impairment (pure tone average loss, 27-55 dB). Adverse effects were best detected with disease-specific rather than generic functional status measures. We conclude that hearing impairment is associated with important adverse effects on the quality of life of elderly individuals, and that these effects are perceived as severe handicaps even by individuals with only mild to moderate degrees of hearing loss.