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One-fifth of Americans with hearing loss that affects communication

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
New statistics estimate one fifth in US over age 12 have hearing loss

One in five people over age 12 in the U.S. suffers from hearing loss that researchers say makes it difficult to communicate. The finding, from Johns Hopkins researchers highlights the significance of the problem.

Hearing loss can take a toll on overall health and well-being, and is linked in past studies to poor physical functioning, memory problems and dementia.

Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor with dual appointments in both the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and in the Department of Epidemiology explains the finding is the first to show the scope of hearing loss across the entire United States.

For their study, the Hopkins team looked at data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (NHANES).

They included everyone over age 12 that had their hearing tested from 2001 to 2008.

The analysis differs from past studies which only included certain populations. The current study may be the first to find that a whopping 12.7 percent of Americans have bilateral hearing loss and 48 million, or 20.3 percent can’t hear well out of at least one ear.

In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 36 million (17 percent) of Americans have some degree of hearing loss.

According to Lin, it was difficult to find numbers related to hearing loss, so the research team devised their own way to find out the condition is more prevalent than shown by previous estimates. The Hopkins team used the World Health Organization’s definition of not being able to discern sounds 25 decibels or less.

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The finding may not be a surprise, given that millions of Americans are frequently exposed to noise that could induce hearing loss at work and from recreational and other activities.

In an interview with The American Speech-Language –Hearing Association, Dr. James F. Battey, Director of the NIH’s NIDCD, to loss one's hearing is literally to be cut off from being able to communicate with one's friends, family, teachers, employers and co-workers. It can impact our social relationships, academic pursuits, career choices and our overall well-being.

Older people when they lose their hearing often no longer want to be out in social settings because the background noise makes it impossible for them to understand spoken language and makes the experience unsatisfactory for them.

Helen Keller is quoted as saying that "hearing is the soul of knowledge and information of a higher order. To be cut off from hearing is to be isolated indeed".

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorder (NIDCD) notes children are especially at risk for hearing loss from stereos, concerts, symphonies, leaf blowers and traffic that can be potentially damaging to the ears with prolonged exposure.

The researchers for this study found hearing loss prevalence doubled with every decade of life.

“This gives us the real scope of the problem for the first time and shows us how big of a problem hearing loss really is,” Lin says.

Hearing that can make communication difficult, delay learning for children and lead to cognitive decline in adults. The new study shows hearing loss affects one in five people in the U.S. over age 12 – estimates that exceed what was previously known.

Image credit: Moreguefile