Examining the Relationship Between Race and Hearing Loss

By Emily Shepard

February is Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating achievements and spreading awareness about issues that affect the African-American community.  

With this in mind, we want to publicize the prevalence of hearing loss among black Americans: Nearly two million have a hearing impairment.1 However, research suggests that the odds of hearing loss are substantially lower for blacks than those who are white.2  Epidemiologic studies of large populations have found that the rate of hearing loss is 40 to 60 percent lower in black individuals compared with white individuals.3 While the basis for this connection remains largely unknown, research has identified a potential biological influence. 

In the study “Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA” by Frank R. Lin, M.D., Ph.D., et al., the authors examine the degree to which skin tone is correlated to hearing loss. The authors argue that melanocytes, which produce the melanin pigment that determines skin color, are present in both the skin and cochlea. Increased melanin in the inner ear may help protect the cochlea against age-related cellular declines and hearing loss in darker-skinned individuals. Differences in noise exposure or in genetic determinants may also factor into the connection between race and hearing loss.4

These findings support the idea that race and hearing loss may be connected. For their study, Lin et al. relied on the Fitzpatrick scale to classify skin types. This scale uses the skin’s tendency to burn and tan to differentiate skin tone. For example, it says that if one always burns and never tans, they are likely to have pale white skin. If someone never burns, they are more likely to have deeply pigmented dark brown to black skin.5 The authors found that darker skin color as assessed by Fitzpatrick skin type was independently associated with better hearing thresholds in black and Hispanic individuals. On the other hand, race and ethnicity were not associated with hearing thresholds after stratification by skin color. The authors argue that these results “serve as preliminary evidence that skin color is independently associated with hearing loss,” and that skin color “may mediate the strong association between race and hearing loss observed in previous epidemiological studies.”6

Nonetheless, it is necessary to remember that although black individuals are at less of risk to experience some form of hearing loss, they are not exempt from it. The role of melanin as it relates to hearing loss is likely to be perceived similarly to its relationship to skin cancer. A Washington Post article titled “Many Blacks Are Unaware of a Skin Cancer That Primarily Affects Dark-Skinned People” explains that those with darker skin tones produce more melanin overall, and that since melanin helps block damaging ultraviolet rays, people of color have greater protection against skin cancer than whites.

But the Washington Post article works to dispel the belief that melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is a “white person’s disease.” Melanoma is indeed much more common in whites (1 in 50) than in African Americans (1 in 1,000). However, research from the American Academy of Dermatology reports that the five-year survival rate for African Americans with melanoma is 73 percent, compared with 91 percent for Caucasians. In addition, acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) is a rare form of skin cancer that primarily strikes people of color. The disease affects areas of the body that have less pigment and receive less exposure to the sun, such as the soles of the feet, and are areas that are more likely to be ignored. ALM can be lethal; reggae musician Bob Marley died from ALM in 1981 at age 36.7

It is important to recognize that things that seem improbable are not impossible. Even if your race or ethnicity decreases the chance that you will contract a form of hearing loss, the best way to ensure healthy hearing is to take protective measures.

HHF strives to spread the word about how you can protect your hearing.

HHF is also committed to finding a cure for the millions of Americans who currently experience hearing loss or tinnitus. 

Donate today to help us make a difference.  

  1. “How the African American Community Deals with Hearing Impaired Individuals: A Qualitative Analysis Using Social Learning Theory”- 2012- By Lakeisha O’ Neil

  2. Lin, Frank R. et al. “Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA.” JARO: Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology 13.1 (2012): 109–117. PMC. Web. 21 Dec. 2015.

  3. Lin FR, Thorpe R, Gordon-Salant S, Ferrucci L. Hearing loss prevalence and risk factors among older adults in the United States. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2011; 66:582–590. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glr002.

  4. Lin, Frank R. et al. “Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA.” JARO

  5. Fitzpatrick TB. The validity and practicality of sun-reactive skin types I through VI. Arch Dermatol. 1988;124:869–871. doi: 10.1001/archderm.1988.01670060015008.

  6. Lin, Frank R. et al. “Association of Skin Color, Race/Ethnicity, and Hearing Loss Among Adults in the USA.” JARO

  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/many-blacks-are-unaware-of-a-skin-cancerthat-primarily-affects-dark-skinned-people/2014/08/04/14164ada-e68a-11e3-afc6-a1dd9407abcf_story.html

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