Research on teen hearing loss published in the Aug. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has implications for audiologists in the short term and in the decades to come.
In "Change in Prevalence of Hearing Loss in U.S. Adolescents" (JAMA, Aug. 18, 2010), researchers showed that teen hearing loss overall jumped 31% from 1988–1994 to 2005–2006, and for mild and worse cases, spiked 77% over the same period (see p. 4 sidebar for definitions of these categories and a research summary).
The study showed one in five U.S. adolescents 12 to 19 years old—approximately 6.5 million teens—had hearing loss in 2005–2006.
In this multipart series, upcoming articles will feature the views of audiologists on the implications of this research, strategies to prevent further erosion of hearing health, and resources to help combat the problem.
"We're on the edge of an epidemic, and we want to do everything we can to stop it," said Roland D. Eavey, one of the four authors and director of the Bill Wilkerson Center and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Eavey said he was startled that hearing loss in this population rose so steeply in such a short time. "Prevalence went way up. In mild and worse cases, it's nearly doubled in less than a generation," he said.
Audiologists predicted this trend, said Tena McNamara, president-elect of the Educational Audiology Association (EAA), whose members are in the schools but in numbers too small to address the issue fully.
"We knew this was coming—and now we have the evidence. We need to find a way to collaborate to help prevent further hearing losses," she said, adding that all audiologists, with the help of school-based speech-language pathologists, should become involved in a broad education campaign on the issue.
The release of the research ignited a media storm on the risk of listening to high-volume music delivered directly into the ear canal through iPods and MP3 players, although the study does not determine causality.
When the story broke, ASHA was ready—not just to respond to the barrage of media requests and to help line up interviews for audiologists, but to point to its longstanding "Listen to Your Buds" public awareness campaign and the list of ASHA journal articles published on the use of MP3 players.
NBC and ABC interviewed ASHA President Tommie L. Robinson, Jr., and the coverage was aired by dozens of affiliates nationwide. Audiology researchers and clinicians were interviewed widely as well, and researcher Brian Fligor—who has published in ASHA's Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research and elsewhere on the hearing health impact of MP3 players—appeared on CBS Evening News.
A Kaiser Family Foundation report [PDF] released in January showed that the time youths spend using personal entertainment technology has increased dramatically in the last five years—to an average of more than 7.5 hours per day for individuals age 8 to 18. That average increases to 10 hours and 45 minutes when media multi-tasking is taken into account.
Eavey said the research team welcomed the publicity. "Whether future research shows that MP3 players are a cause or instead are part of a complex pattern, this is something we can work on," he said.
"Unlike genetic hearing loss, MP3 players are a modifiable risk factor," he said. "The next step is researching in large populations what might be causing this hearing loss."