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Study Shows Hearing Loss is More Prevalent, Strikes Earlier than Thought

It is commonly known that age-related hearing loss its medical term is Presbycusis is quite prevalent, striking one in three people over the age of 60, and half of those older than 85.

New evidence, however, bears out worrying statistics: it seems that the number of people with hearing loss is higher than originally thought, and, sadly, it doesnt just affect older people.

Staggering numbers

Those who believe that hearing impairment is confined to older folks only, hear this: Doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore MD found out otherwise.

Basing their findings on an evaluation of data from a national survey and hearing tests administered to over 5,000 Americans ages 20 to 69 over a five-year period, the researchers concluded that more people suffer from hearing loss including young people - than previously thought.

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Hearing loss now more prevalent in 20-30 year olds

Prior estimations by hearing health specialists and organizations in the United States often based on self-reported hearing loss and thus not totally reliable - put the ballpark figure at between 23 and 31 million. The John Hopkins doctors, however, say that as many as 55 million Americans may have hearing loss in one or both ears.

While the study re-confirmed that hearing loss is prevalent in older people, it also discovered that this impairment affects 8.5 percent of those in their 20s and 17 percent of people in their 30s. In other words, hearing loss is more common in younger people than previously believed.

Risk factors

The study found that some groups of people were more likely to suffer from hearing loss than others, without shedding light on why these groups were more predisposed to be affected.

For example, men are 5.5 times more likely than women to have hearing loss. African Americans are 70 percent less likely to suffer from hearing impairment than white participants; Mexican American men, however, have the highest rate of high-frequency hearing loss in both ears.

Researchers noted that factors such as smoking, cardiovascular risks, as well as noise exposure might lead to an earlier onset of hearing loss.

Whats age got to do with it?

A lot, but not everything. As we grow older, the loss of hearing occurs gradually, starting in the inner ear (cochlea), which contains (nerve) hair cells that convert sound into nerve impulses sent to the brain. As we age, these hair cells begin to degenerate, resulting in hearing loss.

There is little that can be done to prevent this age-related process, however assistive technology, such as hearing aids, can help persons continue to hear by amplifying sounds.

But what about the considerable number of the twenty- and thirtysomethings who are already impacted by hearing loss, even though their inner ear hair cells should not have yet degenerated enough to cause hearing impairment?

The studys authors identified several risk factors, including self-inflicted ones, affecting people of all ages. Loud music and other environmental noises are among those culprits. All of these causes, however, are either preventable or medically treatable:

  • Exposure to loud noise at work or during leisure activities
     
  • Smoking
     
  • High blood pressure
     
  • Diabetes

As one of the study authors puts it, Smoking cessation, reduction to noise exposure, and effective treatment of diabetes and hypertension may delay the onset of hearing loss.

A call to action

Hearing loss, while perhaps inevitable as we age, can be prevented in youth. That can be done only through growing awareness of the enormity of the problem, which, the researchers warn, can reach epidemic proportions if unabated.

The results of our study suggest that prevention (through risk factor reduction) and screening must begin at least in young adulthood and that efforts should be intensified among white and Mexican American men, the authors conclude. Hearing loss reduces health-related quality of life and access to health care. Reducing the incidence of hearing loss through prevention and management programs may produce public health benefits.

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