Good News About Hearing Loss, With Qualifications

Hearing loss is declining, according to a study published on December 15 by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

etna
At the top of Mt. Etna, April 2016, with Damian Croft of Esplora.co.uk. What does this have to do with hearing loss? Nothing! It’s a New Year’s treat.

This is good news.

But before you put back in those earbuds and conclude that all those reports of an “epidemic” of hearing loss were wildly exaggerated, read a little closer.

The study of almost 4000 adults 20 to 69 years old found that the overall prevalence of hearing loss (as measured in the speech frequencies) dropped from 16 to 14 percent in the years between 1999-2004 and 2011-12.  (Among adults 60 to 69, however, a whopping 39.3 percent still had hearing loss.)

The decline among working age adults was slight but statistically significant. Despite the fact that there was a greater number of older adults, “the estimated number of adults aged 20 to 69 years with hearing loss declined absolutely, from an estimate of 28.0 million in the 1999-2004 cycles to 27.7 million in the 2011-2012 cycle.”

“Our findings show a promising trend of better hearing among adults that spans more than half a century,” said Howard J. Hoffman, M.A., first author on the paper and director of the NIDCD’s Epidemiology and Statistics Program. “The decline in hearing loss rates among adults under age 70 suggests that age-related hearing loss may be delayed until later in life.”

The researchers attributed the decline to a decrease in noisy manufacturing jobs, to increased use of hearing protection (OSHA requirements for hearing protection have helped), to a drop in smoking and to better medical care.

A greater awareness of the dangers of noise may also have helped. It’s no longer unusual to see someone at a sporting event or loud concert wearing protective headphones. It’s the norm for people with ride-on lawn mowers or those doing other kinds of noisy yard work to wear headphones.

But before we celebrate and abandon advocacy for equal access for people with hearing loss, remember that the age group studied is getting older every day. In the coming years we can expect that normal age-related hearing loss will have its usual effects. “Despite the benefit of delayed onset of HI,” the paper concluded, “hearing health care needs will increase as the US population grows and ages.”

We’re still going to need cheaper and more accessible hearing aids. We’re still going to have to defeat the stigma of hearing loss so that people will wear those hearing aids – and help offset or prevent the negative health effects of untreated hearing loss.

We’re making progress against hearing loss, and that’s cause for celebration. But don’t give up the good habits that have allowed us to get to this point. The world is still noisy. We still need to protect our ears. There is still a lot of hearing loss. We need to treat it.

 

This post appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Health on Dec. 22, 2016.

8 thoughts on “Good News About Hearing Loss, With Qualifications

  1. I think these statistics send an incorrect message and to me it is not encouraging because most of the the people were able to answer the phone without a volume or tone control. It also encourages the hearing people not to provide captioning or assistive devices to those who cannot hear well. The people who conducted this survey could all “hear a needle dropped in a haystack.”

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    • These interviews were done in person, not by phone. Half of those interviewed were also given hearing tests. That’s a pretty valid test method.
      I think it’s good to note that prevention may be helping to reduce the incidence of hearing loss. It certainly doesn’t mean — as I said very clearly — that we don’t need to keep treating it and providing access.

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  2. There is another caveat to consider. The focus of the paper’s findings was on PTA over a standard range – not high frequency loss. And if you look at the data on high frequency loss you can see that the prevalence, across all adult age groups, is significantly higher – overall it’s 31.1% and for persons 60-69 it’s 68%. While this is noted to be slightly lower than the last survey, this is a high prevalence. It’s also higher in the younger age groups which could indicate noise affect. In addition, the authors note that the while the prevalence is lower in this cycle almost all the confidence intervals overlap, suggesting a wide range of findings and making conclusions less precise. This is not to negate the value of the accomplishments in the area of prevention but it is just important to keep these findings in perspective and continue our efforts to prevent hearing loss, identify it at as early a stage as possible, and to provide access to affordable hearing health care to those who do experience hearing loss.

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    • Thanks Meg, You’re absolutely right about this and it’s great to have an expert weigh in. I write about so much bad news — lack of accessibility, the high cost of hearing aids, lack of insurance coverage — that I was happy to end the year with slightly more positive news. Prevention does seem to be helping but, as I said, in the column, we have a whole baby boom generation reaching the age when we can expect to see decline — and that’s a lot of people!

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  3. This is but one study. It’s pretty hard to draw such broad conclusions even if done by a reputable place like JH. To be honest, it upset me when reading that article, because we face so many problems. Be it hearing aid costs, private funding to cure hearing loss, etc., hearing loss is a major health issue. This somewhat belittles it, in my opinion. Also, where was the study of 2005-2010? Why were those years left out? I think this was a little irresponsible by JH, to be frank.

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    • The studies were both based on date collected by NHANES, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It’s done every two years. I assume the researchers were looking for an approximate 10 year time span. Yes, it’s one study, but as I said to Margaret Wallhagen, it’s nice to have even a tiny bit of good news to report. Next year I promise I’ll go back to griping.

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    • Thank you for your response Jennelson 18. The number of people in the USA with hearing loss is anywhere from 30 million to 46 million depending whose numbers you read. These are people who speak and listen but do not hear well. This test only covered 4000 individuals.

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  4. I can remember a comment from the director of the Ohio Rehabilitation Services in 1993. I had just retired. He said to the rehab counselors “just give them a hearing aid and sent them on their way.” If he read this study it would back up his idea that hearing loss is not a big deal since people are hearing now. NHANES did an injustice to people who are losing their hearing and/or already have a hearing loss.

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