Auditory impairments, particularly those resulting from hazardous occupational noise exposures, are pressing concerns for the US Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). However, to date, no studies have estimated the rate of hearing threshold change that occurs during service or how changes may vary by military occupation. Hearing threshold changes during military service have historically been reported as the proportion of Service members demonstrating a significant threshold shift. This approach does not capture the rate of the hearing threshold change or the specific audiometric frequencies impacted. Determining the rate of hearing threshold change, and factors that affect the rate of change, is important to elucidate the impact of military service on hearing and to guide prevention strategies and subsequent hearing health care. Our primary objective was to estimate the annual rate of hearing threshold change during military service as a consequence of military occupational noise exposure ranking.
We linked audiometric data, collected from military personnel as part of a DoD hearing conservation program, to data describing demographic and military-service characteristics obtained from individuals enrolled in the Noise Outcomes In Service members Epidemiology Study. The analytic cohort included Veterans who enlisted in military service after September 2001 (n = 246). We examined the longitudinal association between military occupations categorized as having a low, moderate, or high noise exposure ranking and pure-tone hearing thresholds (500 to 6000 Hz) using a hierarchical linear model. The average annual rate of hearing threshold change and their 95% confidence intervals were estimated by service branch, military occupational noise exposure ranking, and audiometric test frequency.
On average, hearing threshold change ranged between −0.5 and 1.1 dB/year and changes over time varied by service branch, audiometric test frequency, and military occupation noise ranking. Generally, higher test frequencies (3000 to 6000 Hz) and military occupations with moderate or high noise exposure rankings had the greatest average annual rates of hearing threshold change; however, no dose-response relationship was observed. Among Marine Corps personnel, those exposed to occupations with high noise rankings demonstrated the greatest average annual rate of change (1.1 dB/year at 6000 Hz). Army personnel exposed to occupations with moderate noise rankings demonstrated the greatest average annual rate of change (0.6 dB/year at 6000 Hz).
This study (1) demonstrates the unique use of DoD hearing conservation program data, (2) is the first analysis of hearing threshold changes over time using such data, and (3) adds to the limited literature on longitudinal changes in hearing. The difference in hearing threshold changes across military branches is likely indicative of their varying noise exposures, hearing protection device use and enforcement, and surveillance practices. Results suggest Marine Corps and Army personnel are at risk for hearing threshold changes and that, among Army personnel, this is most pronounced among those exposed to moderate levels of occupational noise exposure. Estimates of the rate of hearing threshold change by frequency and factors that impact hearing are useful to inform the DoD’s efforts to protect the hearing of their Service members and to the Veterans Affairs’s efforts to identify and rehabilitate those most likely to experience hearing threshold change.