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Hearing Impaired Children: 5.2 Million Kids and Counting

One of the most common misconceptions about hearing loss is that only (or predominantly) older people suffer from it.

Actually, only about one-third those with hearing loss are over the age of 64. Two-thirds are younger people, including children. The U.S. government survey data is quite alarming: It shows that nearly 5.2 million children ages 6 to 19 already have permanent hearing loss.

And then there are findings of a recent study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, which shows that by the time children reach school age, one in 20 have hearing loss in one ear.

If you think that one bad ear is not going to have much of a negative effect on the children's development or school performance, think again. "For many years, pediatricians and educators thought that as long as children have one normal hearing ear, their speech and language would develop normally," says the lead author Judith E. C. Lieu, MD. "Our study has shown that, on average, children with hearing loss in one ear have poorer oral language scores than children with hearing in both ears."

Clearly, catching and treating hearing loss as early as possible is crucial, even when it occurs in only one ear.

Now that the alarm has been sounded...

Let's talk about babies first. Most states require routine testing before a newborn is discharged from the hospital thanks in part to a movement called Universal Newborn Hearing Screening. Although relatively few newborns (about 1.2 in 1,000) are found to have hearing loss at birth, it is critical to detect and treat this condition by the time the infant is three months old.

Why? Because even a mild hearing loss can have serious consequences on the child's cognitive development – such as the ability to speak and understand- as well as social interactions.

Early detection and treatment, on the other hand, will ensure that the child will have a healthy start in life.

What treatment options are available to children? More about it in a moment; first, let's look at older kids and teens.

The dangers of environmental noise on hearing

It may be hard to believe, but kids' ears are assaulted by loud noises from the very early age. All children play with toys, but, unfortunately, this seemingly harmless activity can be fraught with danger.

What many parents may not know is that some of the most popular and widely available toys are much too loud for young ears. Every year, researchers at the Minnesota-based Sight and Hearing Association (SHA) purchase most commonly available toys to assess them for noise levels. Shockingly, each year, they find toys that emit hazardous levels of noise.

Last year alone, they pinpointed 15 noisy toys that created, in a child's delicate ear canal, a racket equivalent to a chainsaw. The potential for damage is so considerable that SHA recommends disabling the noise and reporting overly loud toys to the to Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772. For more on the dangers of toys on children's hearing visit: Toys Dangerous to Children's Hearing: Purchase with Caution.

Not exactly music to our ears

children hearing loss
Education is key to responsible listening - protect their hearing

You'd think that once children grow out of the toys stage, their hearing would not be assaulted to the same degree, right? Well, no. Older kids will damage their ears with loud music – either through iPods and other MP3 players, or at live concerts.

Both have been proven to emit sounds far exceeding the safety level of 85 decibels (dB), reaching, in some cases, over 100 dB – noises equivalent to those blared by a power mower and, at least in cases of really loud rock concerts, those of a power saw.

Logic and common wisdom would suggest that the best way to prevent noise-induced hearing damage is to practice moderation. In other words, lower the volume on the personal audio equipment and take frequent breaks. It is not just the level of loudness but also the amount of time the sound is listened to. By turning the volume down and listening in shorter intervals, children can protect themselves from permanent damage.

One way to prevent turning the volume up too loud, especially in the presence of background noise, is by using noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones block out extraneous noise and studies have shown if background noise is reduced persons are less likely to turn the volume up too loud.

For concertgoers, earplugs should be used and will actually allow you to hear the lyrics versus the over powering bass and drum sounds. Music lovers and avid concert goers should consider custom musician earplugs. These custom made earplugs utilize special filters to reduce the overall level of sound without distorting the quality of the music.  In addition they are made specifically for each individual's ears and improve wearing comfort. Custom hearing protection can be ordered through a qualified hearing professional.

Listen up!

There is good news in all this: if caught early, hearing loss in children need not become so severe as to impair their development.

For children with profound to total hearing loss (deafness), advancements in cochlear implants have enabled children to not miss a beat. Children are now typically implanted by the age of one, lessening the likelihood of delay in speech and language development.

For children with lesser degrees of hearing loss digital hearing aid technology has made great strides and efforts to provide children with improved sound quality and listening experiences.

In addition, the latest innovative designs in hearing aids make it possible for these youngsters to have effective – and visually attractive - hearing aids. One example is the Safari line by hearing aid manufacturer Oticon.

True, children may initially feel self-conscious about wearing hearing aids (just as many adults do), but that's where the Safari line is ideal. It consists of three models, each including two styles. Not only that, but the line comes in seven cool colors and includes stickers allowing kids to personalize their devices. Children are part of the design process and can personalize their hearing aids to make them their own unique design.

So the take-home message here is this: 1) screen for hearing loss; 2) avoid exposure to hazardous noise levels; 3) go on a Safari!

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