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The Hearing Journal 63(9):p 7-8, September 2010. | DOI: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000388534.04535.17
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The rate of hearing loss among American adolescents increased by about 30% between the periods 1988–1994 and 2005–2006, according to an article published in the August 18 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). In their study, Josef Shargorodsky, MD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, and three co-authors compared data collected by the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) in the earlier time period with data from NHANES IV, conducted about a decade later. There were 2928 participants aged 12 to 19 years in NHANES III and 1771 in the fourth national survey.

The JAMA article noted that 19.5% of the adolescents in the later survey had a hearing loss, compared to 14.9% in the earlier study. Since NHANES surveys are nationally representative, that 19.5% figure suggests that about 6.5 million Americans age 12 to 19 have some degree of hearing loss. The authors defined hearing loss as slight if it was greater than 15 dB and less than 25 dB in the worse ear and as mild or greater if 25 dB or greater in the worse ear. Unilateral loss was somewhat more common than bilateral.

The NHAMES IV data did little to explain the reason for the growing frequency of teen hearing loss. For example, responses to survey questions about recurrent ear infections, firearm use, and extended exposure to loud noise showed no significant association with hearing loss in 2005–2006. However, the data did show that young people from families below the federal poverty threshold were significantly more at risk of hearing loss than those from non-poor families. The authors called for further studies to determine reasons for the increase in teen hearing loss.

Big news on the web

JAMA articles often draw a lot of attention, but this one proved especially popular with the media, perhaps because its alarming findings seemed to bolster the common perception that young people are destroying their ears with iPods and other MP3 players. As soon as the JAMA study went public, it began generating scores of web, print, and TV and radio reports around the world.

Many of the follow-up stories featured comments from experts not involved in the JAMA article. Especially popular with the media was Brian Fligor, PhD, director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital in Boston, who appeared on the NBC and CBS evening news telecasts and was interviewed by USA Today. In his comments, Fligor warned people not to “blare” their iPods and also noted, “Because hearing loss is cumulative, these teens [who have mild losses now] are at high risk for significant hearing problems.”


Janice Schacter, who has turned her skills as a lawyer to advocating for people with hearing loss, is honored as a “Redbook hero” in the September issue of that magazine. Schacter, a New Yorker, took up the cause after seeing how many activities and facilities were not accessible to her daughter, Arielle, who was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 2–1/2. Taking matters into her own hands, she gave up her legal practice to found and lead the Hearing Access Program.

The program has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in its first 8 years. Thanks largely to its efforts, New York taxis and subway information booths are now equipped with induction loops so people whose hearing aids have telecoils can communicate with the driver or booth attendant. Dozens of other locations have also been looped, including museums and Yankee Stadium. But Schacter's vision extends far beyond New York. Her organization has lobbied successfully for improved access for the hearing-impaired at locations around the country, including national parks, the Pentagon, and Target Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings.

In the Redbook article, Nicole Yorio points to Janice Schacter as an inspiration, exhorting readers, “Never feel powerless! Just one woman can get the government, corporations—anyone to help right a wrong. This get-it-done mom shows you the way.”

Meanwhile, Arielle, a high school junior, is advocating in her own right. She spoke at a workshop for “tweens” with hearing loss and has a blog, bf4life-hearing (short for “best friends for life minus hearing”). Her first blog article was picked up by The Huffington Post last month.

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