Although many adults retain good hearing as they age, hearing loss associated with ageing is common among elderly persons. There are a number of pathophysiolological processes underlying age-related changes to functional components in the inner ear. Genetic factors determine the ageing process but are under the influence of intrinsic and environmental factors. It is difficult to distinguish changes of normal ageing from those of other contributing factors. The effects of age-related deafness can have significant physical, functional and mental health consequences. Although a deficit in hearing can be corrected to some degree by a hearing aid or other appropriate amplification devices, hearing-related rehabilitative needs are much more than simply amplifying external sound. Only by better understanding the process of ageing and its effect on the auditory function can we better accommodate elderly people in our day-to-day interactions. We review here the structure and function of the inner ear, pathophysiology associated with age-related hearing loss (ARHL), heritability, allelism and modifier genes of ARHL, and evaluate the genetic analyses for identification of genetic factors that are involved. Copyright © 2007 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.