CDC Vital Signs Report

Family Physicians Can Help Patients Limit Hearing Loss

February 10, 2017 03:21 pm Chris Crawford

About one in four U.S. adults ages 20-69 who report good to excellent hearing actually have measurable hearing loss.  

That's according to a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report(www.cdc.gov) and accompanying Vital Signs report(www.cdc.gov) released Feb. 7.

CDC researchers analyzed more than 3,500 hearing tests conducted on adults ages 20-69 as part of the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Among the key findings of that evaluation was that nearly 20 percent of people who reported no job-related noise exposure had hearing damage in a pattern typically caused by noise -- that is, as measured by a drop in ability to hear high-pitched sounds.

According to the report, too much noise exposure at home or in the community from sources such as leaf blowers, loud concerts or portable music devices can damage hearing just as much as a noisy workplace.

Story highlights
  • A Feb. 7 CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and an accompanying Vital Signs report examined the prevalence of adult hearing loss.
  • About one in four adults in the United States who report good to excellent hearing actually have measurable hearing loss.
  • CDC researchers analyzed more than 3,500 hearing tests conducted on people ages 20-69 and found that about 20 percent of those who reported no job-related noise exposure had hearing damage in a pattern typically caused by noise.

"Forty million Americans show some hearing damage from loud noise, with nearly 21 million reporting no exposure to loud noise at work," said CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., in a Feb. 7 news release.(www.cdc.gov) "This can be distressing for people affected and their loved ones. We hope this report will help raise awareness of this problem and help clinicians reduce their patients' risk for early hearing loss."

The agency's hearing research was conducted with support from NIH's National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.

Additional Report Findings

The report found that the prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss -- a significant health problem among U.S. adults -- increases with age and is more common among men and patients older than 40. For example, the 2011-2012 NHANES found that about one in five participants (19 percent) ages 20-29 had hearing loss, while more than one in four (27 percent) of those ages 50-59 experienced a loss of hearing.

"Older people are more likely to have hearing loss, but this study finds some young adults are already losing some hearing, so this is a concern for all age groups," Schuchat said. "Asking patients about their hearing, and providing tips for reducing exposure to loud noises, can help our patients preserve their hearing longer."

The CDC cited studies that have shown that untreated hearing loss can lead to anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress. Furthermore, chronic noise exposure has been associated not only with hearing loss but also with worsening of heart disease, increased blood pressure and other adverse health effects. 

Family Physicians Can Help

Jennifer Frost, M.D., medical director for the AAFP Health of the Public and Science Division, told AAFP News the key message here is that for many patients, hearing loss can be prevented or limited if precautions are taken, such as avoiding prolonged exposure to loud noise or using protective equipment.

Frost said the "social history" family physicians take when getting to know patients should include asking about their employment.

"If a patient has a job that exposes them to loud noises, this would be an opportunity to discuss the risk of hearing damage," she noted.

Additionally, if patients say they attend or participate in activities that involve loud noise, such as sporting events or rock concerts, this can provide another entry point to a discussion about safeguarding hearing.

Turn It Down!

The CDC created a brief video(www.youtube.com) to accompany its Feb. 7 Vital Signs report on adult hearing loss that physicians may find to be a useful visual aid to show patients how listening too long and/or too loudly to their portable devices via earphones or earbuds physically alters their ability to hear.  

"Although these exposures do not always come up, if they do, it's an opportunity to discuss the risk of hearing damage and possible protective measures," Frost said.

It should be noted that the AAFP's clinical recommendation on screening for hearing loss in older adults says there is insufficient evidence to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening asymptomatic adults ages 50 and older.

However, Frost noted, this does not mean the Academy recommends against screening this age group. "It's well known that many older adults have undiagnosed hearing loss," she said.

"What is lacking is evidence that screening for hearing loss, and therefore detecting it early, does or doesn't improve outcomes," Frost said.

It's also important to remember, she added, "This screening recommendation does not apply to someone who complains of hearing loss. Then it's no longer screening, and hearing should be evaluated. If someone complains of hearing loss, a thorough history and physical should be obtained to determine degree and type of hearing loss."

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