Although it seems like a simple question, there are many ways to understand the prevalence of hearing loss in the US. In very simple terms, approximately 15% of American adults, amounting to 37.5 million people aged 18 and over, report some trouble hearing. If we consider congenital hearing impairment as well, we can add to that number the 0.2 percent of children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. Perhaps more instructive is to break down these vast numbers into smaller groups. What is the relationship between hearing loss and other demographic factors like age, race, or gender? The following statistics give us a sense not only of who has hearing loss but also what might be causing it. We can design public health initiatives around preventing hearing loss among these groups, as well.
Age and Hearing Loss
Perhaps the most general truth about hearing loss is that older populations are much more likely to have it than younger populations. About 2 percent of people between the ages of 45 and 54 have disabling hearing loss, but that number goes up sharply in older groups. About 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64 have disabling hearing loss. Among seniors, the number is much higher. Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 have disabling hearing loss, and a full 50 percent of those who are 75 and older do so. With these numbers in mind, you can infer that something about old age is leading to much higher rates. Indeed, age-related hearing loss, otherwise known as presbycusis, is one of the top two causes of hearing loss, along with noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL. NIHL has a relationship with age, as well. Noise exposure does not only come in the form of a single very loud blast of sound. A longer duration of relatively quieter sound can also cause loss, so those who work and live in noisy conditions can experience hearing loss over the lifespan.
Other Demographics and Hearing Loss
How about other demographic groups? Men are almost twice as likely as women to have hearing loss, and some explain some of this difference in terms of noise exposure in the workplace. With gender factors contributing to who does what kind of work, many of the jobs that have the highest percentage of men also involve machinery and industrial processes that are very loud. When it comes to racial differences, there are several ways to look at the data. Non-Hispanic white adults are more likely than people of color to have hearing loss, and non-Hispanic black adults have the lowest rate of hearing loss among all racial groups. More research is needed to explain this factor, and researchers have a lot to learn about the relationship between health factors, lifestyle activities, and hearing loss given these findings between racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
Learning about Hearing Loss
Although these statistics are useful to understand how hearing loss works and what can be done about it, there are weaknesses in statistical research, as well. Many of these findings are based on self-reported data. A survey researcher might obtain a sample of people willing to participate in a study, already a biased group according to who is willing to share personal information with a health researcher. Among this group, there is variety in the way individuals think about hearing loss. Although scholars do their best to design surveys that will capture accurate and reliable measures of hearing loss, people respond quite differently. If the entire population were given a hearing test, we would likely obtain quite different results than those that are gathered with self-reports about difficulty hearing. These weaknesses aside, having a general understanding of hearing loss is important to establish the public health measures that can best solve the problems associated with hearing loss. We know that hearing loss is linked to other health issues, including mental health problems and even dementia, so knowing who has hearing loss can help prevent these other conditions, as well. As research in hearing health continues, we will better be able to serve those who have hearing needs.