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Self-Reported Hearing Difficulties Among Adults With Normal Audiograms: The Beaver Dam Offspring Study

Tremblay, Kelly L.1; Pinto, Alex2; Fischer, Mary E.2; Klein, Barbara E. K.2; Klein, Ronald2; Levy, Sarah1; Tweed, Ted S.2; Cruickshanks, Karen J.2,3

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000195
e-Research Articles

Objective: Clinicians encounter patients who report experiencing hearing difficulty (HD) even when audiometric thresholds fall within normal limits. When there is no evidence of audiometric hearing loss, it generates debate over possible biomedical and psychosocial etiologies. It is possible that self-reported HDs relate to variables within and/or outside the scope of audiology. The purpose of this study is to identify how often, on a population basis, people with normal audiometric thresholds self-report HD and to identify factors associated with such HDs.

Design: This was a cross-sectional investigation of participants in the Beaver Dam Offspring Study. HD was defined as a self-reported HD on a four-item scale despite having pure-tone audiometric thresholds within normal limits (<20 dB HL0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 kHz bilaterally, at each frequency). Distortion product otoacoustic emissions and word-recognition performance in quiet and with competing messages were also analyzed. In addition to hearing assessments, relevant factors such as sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, medical history, health-related quality of life, and symptoms of neurological disorders were also examined as possible risk factors. The Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression was used to probe symptoms associated with depression, and the Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form 36 mental score was used to quantify psychological stress and social and role disability due to emotional problems. The Visual Function Questionnaire-25 and contrast sensitivity test were used to query vision difficulties.

Results: Of the 2783 participants, 686 participants had normal audiometric thresholds. An additional grouping variable was created based on the available scores of HD (four self-report questions), which reduced the total dataset to n = 682 (age range, 21–67 years). The percentage of individuals with normal audiometric thresholds who self-reported HD was 12.0% (82 of 682). The prevalence in the entire cohort was therefore 2.9% (82 of 2783). Performance on audiological tests (distortion product otoacoustic emissions and word-recognition tests) did not differ between the group self-reporting HD and the group reporting no HD. A multivariable model controlling for age and sex identified the following risk factors for HD: lower incomes (odds ratio [OR] $50,000+ = 0.55, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.30–1.00), noise exposure through loud hobbies (OR = 1.48, 95% CI = 1.15–1.90), or firearms (OR = 2.07, 95% CI = 1.04–4.16). People reporting HD were more likely to have seen a doctor for hearing loss (OR = 12.93, 95% CI = 3.86–43.33) and report symptoms associated with depression (Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression [OR = 2.39, 95% CI = 1.03–5.54]), vision difficulties (Visual Function Questionnaire-25 [OR = 0.93, 95% CI = 0.89–0.97]), and neuropathy (e.g., numbness, tingling, and loss of sensation [OR = 1.98, 95% CI = 1.14–3.44]).

Conclusions: The authors used a population approach to identify the prevalence and risk factors associated with self-reported HD among people who perform within normal limits on common clinical tests of auditory function. The percentage of individuals with normal audiometric thresholds who self-reported HD was 12.0%, resulting in an overall prevalence of 2.9%. Auditory and nonauditory risk factors were identified, therefore suggesting that future directions aimed at assessing, preventing, and managing these types of HDs might benefit from information outside the traditional scope of audiology.

We used a population approach to identify the prevalence and risk factors associated with self-reported HD among people who perform within normal limits on common clinical tests of auditory function. The percentage of individuals with normal audiometric thresholds and who self-reported HD was 12.0%, the overall prevalence was 2.9%. Auditory and non-auditory risk factors were identified therefore suggesting that future directions aimed at assessing, preventing, and managing these types of HDs might benefit from information outside the traditional scope of audiology.

1Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA; 2Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA; and 3Department of Population Health Sciences, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Funding was received from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in the form of an Administrative Supplement award to K.J.C. (5R01AG021917). This project was supported by R01AG021917 (K.J.C.) from the National Institute on Aging, National Eye Institute, and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and an unrestricted grant from Research to Prevent Blindness. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Aging or the National Institutes of Health.

Portions of this article were presented at the 5th Aging and Speech Communication International and Interdisciplinary Conference, Bloomington, Indiana, 2013, as well as at the Association for Research in Otolaryngology Conference in 2015.

The authors declare no other conflict of interest.

Received May 18, 2014; accepted June 3, 2015.

Address for correspondence: Kelly L. Tremblay, Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98105, USA. E-mail: tremblay@u.washington.edu

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