Hearing loss now affects nearly 20 percent of U.S. adolescents age 12 to 19, a rise of 5 percent during the past 15 years, according to a new Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study co-led by Dr. Ron Eavey, director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center and the Guy M. Maness Professor in Otolaryngology.
Eavey, who conducted the study with former Harvard colleagues Josef Shargorodsky, Sharon Curhan and Gary Curhan, says the results are troubling because hearing loss in adolescents is on the rise and researchers don’t have hard evidence to explain why. “What jumped out at us was the fact that hearing loss had increased a lot,” Eavey says.
The study compared hearing tests conducted as part of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), 1988–1994, and NHANES 2005–2006. NHANES III examined 2,928 participants, and NHANES 2005–2006 examined 1,771 participants, age 12 to 19. The prevalence of any hearing loss increased from 14.9 percent in 1988–1994 to 19.5 percent in 2005–2006.
“One could have hypothesized the opposite,” Eavey says. “Vaccines are out now that can stop bacterial meningitis and also help get rid of some cases of ear infections, so that incidence is down.
“The knee-jerk answer that one might conclude, although supporting data is not clear, is that the increase is caused by loud volume.”
Hearing loss in young persons can compromise social development, communication skills and educational achievement, according to the authors.
“We can modify noise exposure, and that’s where I think we can at least try to put some brakes on, whether it is coming from noise-induced hearing loss or not,” Eavey says. “We are looking at the front wall of an epidemic, and we can help to prevent the loss to allow kids to enjoy their ears and their great music a lot longer.”
Eavey, who also chairs the Department of Otolaryngology, says parents and children should preset electronic music devices to somewhere between one-half and two-thirds maximum volume because any sound over 85 decibels exceeds what hearing experts consider to be a safe level. Some MP3 players are programmed to reach levels as high as 120 decibels.
“As parents we can’t hear how loud their music is when they have the ear buds in, so this is an important step,” he says. “I can tell you that if you hear the music coming from their headphones, it is too loud, but an easier way to know for sure is to preset the device.”