Today’s teens seem to be losing their hearing at a faster rate than their parents and grandparents did. In fact, news media would like us to believe that there’s epidemic of hearing loss among youngsters of all ages.
But is that really the case? With one exception—which we’ll get to in a minute—experts don’t think so.
“I don’t think there’s more hearing loss, I think it’s more that it’s being identified more now,” said Bart Baker, audiologist at the world-renowned Farrior Ear Clinic in Tampa, Florida (USA). “For instance, newborn hearing screenings are in place in many hospitals now. And people recognize that if a child’s speech isn’t developing properly, many times that can be attributed to hearing loss.”
Whether or not a child’s hearing loss can be helped medically depends on the kind of loss. If it’s conductive hearing loss sometimes surgery can help.
“Conductive hearing loss is most often caused by chronic ear infections,” Baker said. “Or it can be a genetic abnormality.”
Conductive hearing loss, by definition, means a mechanical problem, usually in the middle or outer ear. It may be a buildup of fluid caused my chronic infections, or it may be a birth defect.
Surgery can correct quite a few causes of conductive hearing loss. One that’s simple is the insertion of drainage tubes to prevent the buildup of fluid from chronic ear infections.
Other surgeries are much more complex, and are termed micro-surgery. Obviously not every ear doctor or every surgeon can perform these surgeries; some of them are very specialized techniques.
Other “chronic ear” surgeries: Sometimes chronic infections can produce a condition known as cholesteatoma, which means “skin cysts.” Surgeons can remove the cysts and rebuild the middle ear; this usually takes multiple surgeries.
Tympanoplasty: In simple English this means eardrum reconstruction. There are several techniques for it; surgeons often rebuild the small hearing bones in the ear at the same time.
Stapes surgery: Sometimes the stapes—which is one of the small bones in the year—is damaged. A good ear surgeon may be able to repair it with a laser procedure.
Correction of congenital hearing problems: Only about 20% of congenital hearing problems can be corrected, but when you’re part of that 20%, a good ear surgeon is your best friend.
Cochlear implants: About 80% of patients with congenital hearing problems have some kind of inner ear deformity or don’t have enough (or any) receptor cells. Some of these patients can be helped with cochlear implants.
Removal of acoustic neuromas: an acoustic neuroma is a tumor on the “hearing” nerve that goes to the brain. A good neurosurgeon can remove such a tumor, although this surgery does have some risks.
When it comes to sensory neural hearing loss, this is a different matter. Although there are some genetic factors that can be present, this kind of hearing loss is caused for the most part by noise exposure, and is the area where experts are seeing much more hearing damage in teenagers than they did in the past. This kind of loss also is almost completely preventable.
And here’s the exception: You know those ear buds you stick in your ears when you want to take your iPod and go jogging? There’s part of the problem. You’re putting high levels of sound right next to your eardrums. An adult usually has enough sense to turn down the volume, but kids like it loud.
“That kind of damage is definitely more prevalent,” Baker said.
In fact, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows a marked increased in teen hearing loss from the 1988 survey to the 2006 one in teens from age 12 to age 19. Dr. Josef Shargorodsky, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital studied the data, and concluded that ear buds and earphones and high volume music certainly are part of the problem.
However, he said, there’s more to the picture. The amount of time teens spend listening to loud music doesn’t account for all of the change. Other factors—including nutrition and toxins (including ototoxic medications)—may be partly to blame; more studies are needed to pinpoint all the factors.
Nonetheless, this is not good news for this generation of young people. And it points once again to the necessity of protecting your hearing in every way you can in today’s world.