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The Younger Generation of Hearing Loss

So you think you're too young to have a hearing problem?

A common misconception is that hearing loss is a problem isolated to “the elderly” and is merely related to normal aging.  Actually the prevalence of hearing loss is the reverse of what most people think. The majority (65%) of people with hearing loss are younger than age 65 (Better Hearing Institute, 2014). There are more than six million people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 44 with hearing loss, and nearly one and a half million are school age. Hearing loss affects all age groups.

A recent study reported an increase in the incidence of adolescent hearing loss in ages 12-19 years from 14% in 1988-1994, to 19% in 2005-2006 (Shargorodsky, et.al., 2010).  This study also reported a significantly higher incidence of hearing loss in this age group for families below the poverty line.  It is theorized that this trend is potentially due to increased levels of noise exposure in normal living environments, and the use of ear level personal listening devices. 

General guidelines presented by the Better Hearing Institute (2014):

  • 3 in 10 people over age 60 have hearing loss;
  • 1 in 6 baby boomers (ages 41-62), or 14.6%, have a hearing problem;
  • 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-43), or 7.4%, already have hearing loss;
  • At least 1.4 million children (18 or younger) have hearing problems;
  • It is estimated that 3 in 1,000 infants are born with serious to profound hearing loss.

Noise induced hearing loss typically consists of reduced audibility in the high-pitched range.  The impact of this type of hearing loss can be insidious because hearing levels are generally intact for low-pitched sounds, meaning a voice can be heard, but speech intelligibility is affected.  An individual with noise induced hearing loss may perceive normal hearing, except when in noisy or challenging listening environments.  One could experience this type of hearing loss for many years without realizing the fatigue and deprivation effects on the auditory system.  It is common for tinnitus, or ringing in your ears, to accompany this type of hearing loss.  Subtle symptoms related to stress levels and socialization may go unnoticed due to the very gradual change occurring over a long period of time.

Hearing loss related to noise exposure tends to affect high pitched hearing because of the resonance of the adult ear canal and the shape of the inner ear.  The inner ear, or cochlea, is a snail shaped structure that is tonotopically organized, meaning that the organization of the nerve endings and hair cells along the curled length of the structure are pitch-specific.  Pictured here is a scanning electron micrograph image from both a normal, undamaged cochlea and one that has experienced extensive noise exposure and hair cell loss.  (Scanning Electron Micrograph H.Engstrom/ B.Engstrom – courtesy of Widex APS) The sensory hair cells connected to auditory nerve endings for transducing chemical to electrical energy are literally demolished in the region responsible for high frequency sounds. 

                                              

With the advent of new hearing technologies and increased awareness of hearing loss in the general community, many younger individuals are now pursuing regular hearing screenings and hearing aids when they have hearing loss.  An estimated 6-10% of new hearing aid fittings during the last year were for individuals born in the 1960’s.  Factors involved in these cases generally included noisy hobbies and work environments.  One patient, age 46, feels that his hearing loss resulted from years of unprotected motorcycle driving.  Another patient, age 47, claimed to have played in a rock band and worked in a noisy factory for many years.  Younger patients typically experience successful use of hearing instruments due to the shorter duration of hearing loss, leading to improved adaptability. 

Untreated hearing loss in younger adults can lead to issues related social life, dating and relationships, work interactions and performance, and parenting.  Early diagnosis and use of hearing instruments could change the lives of the individual with hearing loss, and also loved ones, colleagues, and friends.  Unfortunately, only 13% of family practice physicians refer for regular hearing screening, therefore, it is up to the individual to pursue this type of health screening.  It is recommended that adults over 45 to obtain an annual hearing screening and under 45 to have a hearing test every two years. 

References:

Better Hearing Institute, (2014).  Retrieved on 7/23/2014 from: https://www.betterhearing.org/hearingpedia/prevalence-hearing-loss.

Shargorodsky, J.; Curhan, S.; Curhan, G.; Eavey, R. (2010). Change and prevalence of hearing loss in U.S. adolescents, Journal of the American Medical Association, 304(7), 772-778.


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