Teens Suffering Hearing Loss: 1 in 5

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One in five teenagers have the kind of hearing loss typical of a 50- or 60-year-old, according to a new study by Boston researchers. That is about one-third more than the proportion of adolescents who could not hear quiet whispers in the early 1990s, according to the paper published in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Teen hearing loss very subtle

"This is a sobering" finding, said Paul R. Kileny, professor and director of audiology and electrophysiology at the University of Michigan Health System, who was not involved in the study.

The study looked at data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1988 and 1994 and compared it with data collected by the same survey between 2005 and 2006. There was information about nearly 3,000 teenagers in the earlier survey and more than 1,500 in the later one.

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Most of the hearing loss measured by the Boston team was very subtle, on the order of quiet whispers that go unheard. Brian Fligor, the director of diagnostic audiology at Children’s Hospital Boston, who was not involved in the research is concerned that hearing loss follows a predictable progression. If it is already starting in the teens, by the time these youths are in their 30s and 40s, they will be having trouble listening to conference calls or will be offering the wrong answer at business meetings.

“High frequencies are usually the first affected with hearing loss,’’ Shargorodsky said. “There are probably a couple of kids in every classroom in America who will have some level of hearing loss, and it’s important for teachers to be aware of that and parents and physicians, as well.’’

The study did not address the causes of that hearing loss. Other research has suggested a wide range of possibilities, from musical instruments to firearms, poor medical care, and headphones, said Fligor, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School.

A recent Australian study, however, found a 70% increased risk of hearing loss associated with the use of headphones to listen to portable music, and many experts suspect they are the primary cause of hearing loss in teens.

“It’s the combination of all the things that we do that are going to take a toll on our hearing, and it’s entirely preventable,’’ Fligor added. “Go ahead and do it: Enjoy yourself. Listen to music, go to that rock concert, shoot (recreational weapons), but take steps to enjoy it safely.’’

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