By Brad Prescott, Caring.com senior editor
The statistics are shocking. Nearly 50 percent of adults over age 75 and roughly 20 percent of teenagers have hearing loss. But good news is on the horizon: The Hearing Health Foundation's Hearing Restoration Project has identified what may well be a cure for hearing loss. Andrea Boidman is the executive director of the Hearing Health Foundation.
Tell us about the Hearing Health Foundation.
Andrea Boidman: Hearing Health Foundation is the largest private funder of hearing research, with a mission to prevent and cure hearing loss through groundbreaking research. Since 1958, Hearing Health Foundation has given almost $30 million to hearing and balance research, including work that led to cochlear implant technology. In 2011, Hearing Health Foundation launched the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), a consortium of scientists working on cell regeneration in the ear. HRP's goal is a biologic cure for most types of acquired hearing loss. Hearing Health Foundation also publishes Hearing Health magazine, a free consumer resource on hearing loss and related technology, research, and products.
What are the most common misconceptions about hearing loss?
AB: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that hearing loss is something that only affects our grandparents. While it's true that 47 percent of adults over age 75 have a hearing loss, it's also true that 1 in 5 teenagers now has hearing loss! Two to 3 babies out of every 1,000 have a hearing loss, and more and more baby boomers are acquiring hearing loss from noise. People erroneously assume that those with hearing loss have a problem with volume, and that if you speak loudly or yell it will mitigate the hearing loss. Hearing loss may occur at specific frequencies, and for many, it means that they constantly hear buzzing, ringing, or noise, or that sounds are distorted. Another big misconception about hearing loss is that hearing aids or a cochlear implant can restore hearing to "normal" levels. While these instruments can be incredibly beneficial, and we always encourage people to take advantage of whatever technology will help them hear best, they are not the same as hearing naturally. Our work in regeneration of the inner ear hair cells through the Hearing Restoration Project will, when we are successful, offer a biologic cure for most types of hearing loss.
What are the biggest threats to hearing health in our modern environment?
AB: Noise, noise, and more noise! The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders estimates that approximately 15 percent (26 million) of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds or noise at work or during leisure activities. This noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable. At Hearing Health Foundation we have a slogan, "Walk, Block, and Turn." First, avoid loud sounds, and if you are able to do so, walk away from them. Distancing yourself will help reduce your noise exposure. Next, block the sound. If you know you will be in a noisy environment, like a concert or using loud machinery, use earplugs to block the sound. For music aficionados, there are some amazing "musician's earplugs" on the market that can reduce sound levels evenly while retaining the clarity of the music, so that sound won't be muffled. And if there is a loud unexpected noise, like a fire truck's siren, your hands will work to block out the noise. And finally, turn down the volume on stereos and especially personal MP3 devices. We have a great infographic on our website, at hearinghealthfoundation.org/decibel-chart, that gives the decibel levels for common, everyday sounds and shows which sounds can be dangerous. One thing I always mention is that listening to an MP3 device at maximum volume for more than 15 minutes a day will likely cause a permanent hearing loss. The volume bar should be between 50 and 75 percent to stay in a safe listening range. Our environments are noisy -- whether in a city or on a farm -- and loud music only compounds the environmental sounds to which we are exposed every day. It's important to educate our families -- especially children -- on the dangers of loud noise, and what we can do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
What, if anything, can people do to help prevent hearing loss as they age?
AB: Age-related hearing loss is probably the most common, and unfortunately there is not a lot that can be done to prevent it. Certainly, the suggestions I had for preventing noise-induced hearing loss should be applied for any age. I would encourage anyone who suspects a hearing loss to see a hearing healthcare professional for an evaluation, especially since the side effects of hearing loss go well beyond not being able to hear as well. Depression and isolation are common in those with hearing loss, and untreated hearing loss significantly increases the likelihood that a person will be diagnosed with dementia. More research is currently being done on the relationship between dementia and hearing loss, to determine if one is causal or if treating hearing loss with hearing aids or cochlear implants can stave off dementia, even by a few years.
What advice do you have for caregivers who sense their loved one is experiencing hearing loss?
AB: Very often it is a family member who first notices that there may be a hearing problem. An evaluation by an audiologist or an otolaryngologist (ENT) is the first step, and a necessary one to determine the type of hearing loss. Some types are correctible with surgery, such as otosclerosis, and sometimes hearing loss is a temporary result of something as simple as a buildup of earwax or an untreated ear infection. The hearing healthcare professional can also make a recommendation on what type of hearing device would best benefit each person. For some, assisted listening devices like amplified telephones will suffice, while others may benefit from hearing aids or even cochlear implants. On a practical level, it's important to always be facing a person who has hearing loss when you are talking. A colleague once told me that if his wife calls to him from another room, it doesn't count! You should speak naturally to a person with hearing loss; don't yell, but also try not to speak too fast. Also, try to avoid having conversations in places that have a lot of background noise. Restaurants are often very difficult for people with hearing loss.
In 2011, Hearing Health Foundation launched the Hearing Restoration Project. What is this about?
AB: The HRP is a consortium of senior scientists who are working together to find ways to regenerate inner ear hair cells in the human ear. These cells are necessary for translating sound to electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Damage to these cells, such as age-related, noise-induced, and autoimmune hearing loss, is one of the most common forms of hearing loss. Twenty-five years ago, research partially funded by Hearing Health Foundation yielded the amazing discovery that chickens could spontaneously regenerate their hair cells after damage and restore hearing to normal levels. Later we learned that most animals -- except for mammals -- have this ability. Now our team is translating what we know about birds to humans. Our HRP members are working collaboratively rather than competitively, pooling their knowledge, resources, and expertise as they work together on a cure for hearing loss. The HRP, which is exclusively funded by donations from the public, is now entering its second year of funding. Information about our consortium members as well as their projects can be found at hearinghealthfoundation.org/curinghearingloss.
Lastly, how can people support the Hearing Health Foundation?
AB: Great question! To make a contribution to the research we are funding, including the HRP, visit www.hhf.org. You can also subscribe to our free online magazine on that page. I also encourage people to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, where we post research and other hearing-related updates on a daily basis.