How Prevalent is Hearing Loss in America?

Hearing loss is more prevalent in the United States than previously thought.

By Elizabeth Brassine, Au.D.

How prevalent is hearing loss in America? You may be surprised! Nearly a fifth of all Americans 12 years or older have enough hearing loss to make communication difficult, according to a new study led by Johns Hopkins researchers and published in the Nov. 14 Archives of Internal Medicine. The findings, thought to be the first nationally representative estimate of hearing loss, suggest that many more people than previously thought are affected by this condition. The study was led by Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Using the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss (not being able to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies), the researchers found that overall, about 30 million Americans, or 12.7% of the population, had hearing loss in both ears. That number jumps to about 48 million, or 20.3%, for people who have hearing loss in at least one ear. These numbers far surpass previous estimates of 21 to 29 million.

Hearing loss prevalence nearly doubled with every age decade, with women and blacks being significantly less likely to have hearing loss at any age. Lin and his colleagues aren’t sure why these groups appear to be protected. However, he notes that the female hormone estrogen, as well as the melanin pigment in darker skin, could have a protective effect on the inner ear.In the meantime, Lin says, the new numbers greatly impact the work he and other researchers are doing on hearing loss and its consequences, which, according to previous studies, include cognitive decline, dementia, and poor physical functioning.

Lin’s research also looked at a link between hearing loss and the risk of falling in middle aged-adults and the elderly. They found that hearing loss triples the risk!

So, how does someone know that they have hearing loss? There are several signs or symptoms that suggest hearing loss is present. These are things like having trouble hearing over the phone, finding it difficult to follow conversations especially when there are multiple speakers, needing to turn up the television, having difficulty hearing in background noise, or saying that others around them are mumbling, etc.

Hearing loss can be caused by so many factors such as the aging process, noise exposure, viral or bacterial infections, head injuries, tumors, certain medications such as some chemotherapy drugs, and heredity, among others. Audiologists are also starting to see a relationship with hearing loss and those who have suffered with COVID-19.

The pandemic and subsequent mask usage is also making many people more aware of their hearing loss. Masks, although necessary to reduce risk of spreading disease, pose challenges for all of us with communication. This is especially true for people with hearing loss. Masks remove visual cues that we all rely on for communication. There are clear masks available that are helpful for some. However, in addition to removing visual cues, masks also degrade the speech information, particularly the high pitch sounds which are the consonants of speech. And, different masks have different effects. The N95 masks, which are the most beneficial in reducing disease transmission, have the biggest impact on degrading speech information.

“This gives us the real scope of the problem for the first time and shows us how big of a problem hearing loss really is,” Lin says. The moral of the story is that it’s a good idea to have your hearing tested throughout your life. See an audiologist today and stay connected.