A study published Thursday in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery shows that hearing loss among adults ages 20 to 69 years continues to decline. However, it’s uncertain how long that trend will last, and as America ages, the number of people in America with hearing loss overall will continue to rise.
Led by Howard J. Hoffman of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the paper analyzed data from the 2011-2012 cycle of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It looked at responses from almost 4,000 people, divided almost equally among men and women.
The research showed that national prevalence of hearing loss among those ages 20 to 69 was 14 percent, or 27 million people. That’s down from 16 percent for the 1999-2004 cycles.
However, among people ages 60 to 69 years, the prevalence of hearing loss was much higher, at 39 percent. As America continues to age, with 11,000 Baby Boomers per day turning 65 and advances in medicine helping people to live longer (although some argue not necessarily better), the overall prevalence of hearing loss in America will skyrocket.
As for the trend toward less hearing loss among those in the 20-69 age group, “Explanations for this trend are speculative, but could include reduction in exposure to occupational noise (fewer manufacturing jobs, more use of hearing protection devices), less smoking, and better management of other cardiovascular factors, such as hypertension and diabetes.”
It’s important to note that just in the past few years, audiologists have begun to anecdotally report seeing an increase among young adults with hearing loss. They have speculated that this could be due to high-quality “ear buds” that young people use to listen to music with on their phones. One doctor told NBC News he believes hearing loss among teens is about 30 percent more prevalent than in the 1980s.
While old headphones would distort sound when music was turned up too high, making listening at such high levels uncomfortable, new technology allows them to “rock out” with clarity.
With no known cure or treatment for age-related hearing loss, the authors of the study say it’s important to educate Americans about the effectiveness of hearing aids. “Hearing aids can improve speech communications, but they are not used by most people with hearing loss. Several studies, including in countries that subsidize the cost of hearing aids, have demonstrated many barriers to the use of hearing aids other than cost: Self-perceived lack of benefit, and comfort and appearance of the hearing aid.”
But in America, cost is a serious concern. Most health insurance plans do not fully cover the cost of hearing aids, and many do not even cover partial cost, especially if hearing loss is not considered severe. “Reducing obstacles to use of hearing aids through educating patients about the importance of amplification, training health care professionals to understand and overcome patients perceived barriers, improving the quality and affordability of hearing aid devices, and increasing access to hearing health services are important public health objectives in view of the high prevalence of hearing loss in the U.S. adult population.”