When “good news” is bad news

Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in JAMA Otolaryngology about hearing loss in young people age 12-19 is getting press as good news. Researchers at the University of California (both the Los Angeles and San Francisco medical schools) analyzed audiometric test data on young Americans from the National Center for Health Statistics collected by National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES). The researchers concluded that the prevalence of hearing loss as measured by standard pure tone audiometry had not increased despite wider use of headphones and earbuds to listen to personal music players.

We don’t think this is good news at all.

First, the researchers state that the prevalence of hearing loss in 2009-2010 is 15.2%. Hearing only worsens with age, so based on the data, it appears that about one-sixth of young people are likely to have profound hearing loss in mid-to-late life. If they were losing their vision instead, would anyone think this was good news?

Second, the subjects hearing was assessed by standard pure-tone audiometry. These traditional tests do not detect hidden hearing loss, which indicates nerve damage (synaptopathy) caused by noise exposure. Only techniques that are now considered research techniques will detect this early auditory damage.

Third, the authors note that there was increased risk of hearing loss in racial/ethnic minorities and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Isn’t hearing health an issue for this group of Americans too?

Finally, the researchers discuss the many limitations of this type of data analysis, which means that no definite conclusions can be drawn from this study.

In the end, the article generated a lot of “good news” headlines and in doing so has done a disservice to all young people, because those headlines and the cursory reports that followed downplay the dangers of increased headphone and earbud use. This is particularly galling and irresponsible when one recognizes that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

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