Hearing loss can be a disabling condition in social, economic, and academic terms. Even a mild hearing loss (a 25-dB loss) can impair language processing, which can limit communication and negatively affect work, health-related quality of life, and cognitive and emotional processing. The costs of increased medical needs and diminished autonomy associated with hearing loss are shared by society, and hearing loss may reach epidemic status by 2050 as more older workers reach retirement age.

The study “Prevalence of Hearing Loss and Differences by Demographic Characteristics Among US Adults” sought to determine the number of Americans with at least a mild hearing loss. The information collected from 5,742 U.S. adults aged 20 to 69 who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2004 was used. This study determined that 16.1 percent of adults (or 29 million Americans) had a hearing loss in at least one ear. Perhaps more troubling was that 31 percent of participants had a high-frequency hearing loss — which commonly disrupts speech understanding.

Odds of hearing loss were 5.5 times greater in men vs. women, and 70 percent lower in black participants vs. white participants. Hearing loss was more prevalent among smokers, those who faced noise-exposure risks, and those who faced cardiovascular risks. Male subjects who were white, older, and less educated faced significantly higher rates of hearing loss. In particular, those with high blood pressure or diabetes and those who had smoked for longer than 20 years had hearing loss more often. Mexican American men aged 20 to 29 years were about as likely as white men in the same age group to have hearing loss (about 15 percent), compared with 6.8 percent among black men, and only 2.1 to 4.1 percent among women of the same age.

The results of this study suggest that hearing loss first develops at higher frequencies — a staggering 93 percent of white men aged 60 to 69 had high-frequency hearing loss. This type of hearing loss may also be a precursor to mid- and lower-frequency hearing losses. Because pathological conditions of the auditory nerve or brainstem rarely manifest as hearing loss, it’s likely that at least some of the hearing loss experienced by the individuals in this study is of the preventable type, meaning that we as care providers can do more to help spread the word about protecting hearing.

Overall, hearing-loss prevalence increased with age among all demographic groups and at all levels of smoking, noise exposure, and cardiovascular risks. Quitting smoking, taking better care of hearing through protection against noise exposure, and the effective treatment of diabetes and high blood pressure may delay or prevent the onset of hearing loss.

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