Middle Age No Barrier to Hearing Loss
Feb. 23, 2011 - Hearing loss is a common problem in older adults, but it turns out that people in middle age are struggling to hear as well. And some of that hearing loss may be tied to cardiovascular disease.
A study that collected data on more than 3,200 men and women - average age 49 - found that about 14 percent of participants had some level of hearing loss.
Factors that contribute to hearing loss include working in a noisy environment, having a parent who had hearing loss, and, possibly, heart disease.
"One possible explanation for the connection between cardiovascular disease and hearing loss may be that disruptions or changes to blood flow that come with cardiovascular disease may lead to less oxygen in the inner ear or other parts of the auditory pathway," says lead researcher Scott D. Nash at the University of Wisconsin.
For the study, Nash and other researchers analyzed data from the Beaver Dam Offspring Study, which is tracking the effects of aging. They measured hearing loss as the inability to hear certain tones, and also as the inability to recognize words at different sound levels and words spoken by male and female voices.
In the word recognition test, 89.6 percent of the people were able to hear the words well when they were spoken in a quiet environment, but only 63.5 percent heard the words correctly when the environment was noisy, such as in a crowd.
Hearing loss was most common among men and the less educated, and people who worked in a noisy environment or who had had ear surgery.
Thomas Balkany, M.D., of the University of Miami Ear Institute, says he thinks the world "is getting noisier all the time." This rising level of noise is causing the increase in hearing loss, he says, particularly for lower-income people who often are exposed to louder noise over a longer period of time at their jobs.
He says that lifestyles that increase the risk for chronic health problems also increase the risk for hearing loss. "The message is the same -- protect your hearing," Dr. Balkany says.
You can gauge the safety of noise by using your voice. Whatever the environment, if you have to raise your voice, it's too loud.
How long you're exposed to the noise and your distance from it control the extent of hearing loss and how fast it shows up. A noise like a gunshot (140 decibels) can cause instant, permanent hearing loss, which may start as a ringing or buzzing. Long exposure to noises from motorcycles, lawn mowers, and the subway (90 to 100 decibels) can cause gradual hearing loss.
If you can't avoid damaging noises, protect your ears. Earplugs can either lessen the sound or block it. You can also buy ear protectors that fit over the ears; this type of protection, worn by shooters and people who use loud machinery, cuts out even more noise. You may want to use both earplugs and ear protectors. Earphones also are available for air travelers; these devices block engine sound and wind noise.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.