Teenagers hearing less with hearing loss

September 14, 2010

By Laura Geggel

One in five teenagers is experiencing slight hearing loss, according to a recent study of the nation’s youth.

Hearing loss can affect teenagers in more ways than one. In addition to asking people to repeat themselves, it can compromise social development, communication skills and educational achievement, according to the study.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study compared teenage hearing loss from 1988-1994 and 2005-06, using data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The survey looked at youths ages 12-19 — 2,928 from 1988-1994 and 1,771 from 2005-06.

Data showed that hearing loss had increased significantly, from about 15 percent in 1988-1994 to about 20 percent in 2005-06.

Those with hearing loss were more likely to have trouble hearing high frequencies.

Linnea Peterson, an otolaryngologist — an ear, nose and throat doctor — who works at Swedish/Issaquah, said even slight hearing loss can affect people.

“If there is a lot of noise around you and you have a mild high-frequency loss, you can have much more difficulty talking to someone next to you, because you’ve lost some of the sound, some of the clarity,” Peterson said.

People who have trouble hearing high-frequency sounds often lose sounds like S and T.

“The words start to get muddy and it’s a lot harder to understand,” Peterson said. “You hear that they’re talking, you know that they’re right there, but you can’t interpret it as well.”

The study also found that teenagers tend to lose hearing in only one ear. While this might sound good — one is better than none, after all — it can make hearing difficult, especially with high-frequency hearing loss.

Virginia Mason Issaquah otolaryngologist Jamie Chang said the body uses both ears to help pinpoint the location of a sound.

“High frequency (loss) often times can affect your ability to be able to identify where sound is coming from,” Chang said.

Hearing through the ages

Hearing screenings begin the minute babies are born, Chang said. When children enter elementary school, their hearing is typically screened once a year.

Children develop language and social interactions in elementary school, and hearing screenings can catch ear infections, wax buildup or other maladies and help families seek medical attention if necessary.

Most middle and high school children do not have regular hearing tests, but Chang said older children are more likely to tell an adult if they are experiencing hearing problems.

Hearing decreases with age, but usually it takes time.

“Most changes happen later in adult life,” Chang said. “You’ll have 25-year-olds with the same hearing as they were when they were 5.”

Depending on the type and severity of hearing loss, a patient could be a candidate for a hearing aid or a cochlear implant.

“There are some situations where there can be some recovery, but generally it is permanent,” Peterson said.

Turn it down

People listening to headphones are not always aware how loud their music is, but passers-by can help them, Chang said.

“If someone can hear it from about an arm’s length away, it’s too loud,” she said.

Not all teenagers listen to loud music. Issaquah High School senior Shannon Chen said she listens to classical music to help her concentrate on her homework.

“It depends where I am,” Chen said. “I usually don’t like my music cranked up to the point where other people can hear it.”

Her friend Elaine Huang said she listens to her iPod Touch almost everywhere: She plugs it into speakers at home, listens on the car ride to school, between classes and on the bus ride home.

The music “gets me pumped,” she said. “The loudest I usually get is on the bus. I have a lot of middle schoolers on the bus. I make it louder so I can drown out their voices.”

But Peterson warned against listening to loud music that is too loud for too long.

“I think that there are a lot of times where the world gets to be so noisy that you don’t realize that the level has crept up to an intensity level that is a problem,” she said.

People listening to loud music or other loud noises can use earplugs or move away from the sound, Chang said. People who feel pressure or hear ringing in their ears should reduce the amount of noise they are hearing, she added.

Concerned parents can set volume controls on Apple iPods and iPhones by using the volume limit adjustment.

“We would encourage individuals to be careful with how loud and how long they are exposed to noise,” said Gary Curhan, the study’s senior author, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The study also found that teenagers from families living below the federal poverty threshold were more likely to have hearing loss. While they did not investigate the causes of the hearing loss, the study’s researchers did cite a 2010 Australian study linking hearing loss in children who use personal listening devices.

Peterson said the best thing for parents to do was talk to their children about hearing loss.

“I think, being the parent of a teenager myself, some of it is making sure the teenagers are aware of it,” she said, “because when you’re an adolescent, you’re not thinking about what your hearing is going to be like when you’re 60, necessarily.”

How to change iPod volume

Adjust the volume on an Apple iPod Nano, iPod Classic, iPod Touch or iPhone by going to settings. On an iPod Shuffle, adjust the volume to a desired volume, connect it to iTunes and select “Limit maximum volume.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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