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