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How to prevent hearing loss?

2012-08-09

CUMBERLAND — Ear infections are the reason that most children wind up in audiologist Jana Brown’s office — not surprising, since 85 percent of all children experience at least one ear infection in their lifetime, according to the Better Hearing Institute.

But lately, Brown has been treating an increasing number of adolescents for something far more unexpected — noise-induced hearing loss.

“We’re seeing kids that are 17 years old that if I were to look at just their hearing, I’d think they were 70 years old,” said Brown, a doctor of audiology at Allegany Hearing and Balance.

“I’ve just about fallen off my chair. It’s unbelievable.”

Loud music, played through the headphones or ear buds of iPods and MP3 players, could be one of the reasons for the nationwide trend, but any loud noise can potentially damage hearing, according to researchers at the BHI.

The roar of a jet. The blast of a rifle. The engine of a four-wheeler.

It all adds up.

An estimated 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 — about one in seven — have some degree of hearing loss due to excessive noise exposure at home or work, according to the BHI.

For adolescents, the ratio is one in five, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That’s a significant increase from a decade ago.

“The numbers are way up, unfortunately, and we really, as a profession, need to start screaming about it,” said Brown, who recommends hearing aids for adolescents with serious hearing damage. Otherwise, “they miss so much,” Brown said.

“When you don’t amplify hearing loss it has many effects. One of them is auditory deprivation. It’s kind of like exercise. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If you’re not using those auditory pathways, they don’t function as well.”

Teens with untreated hearing loss can have trouble at school, too. According to the BHI, hearing loss remains one of the most commonly “unrecognized and unaddressed issues” in the classroom today.

Students who can’t hear well could have a downward slide in school performance or behavior, be easily distracted, overly aggressive, or withdrawn, according to the BHI.

In Allegany County Public Schools, students receive hearing screenings when they first enter school, and again in first, fifth and ninth grades, said Reba Niland, nurse practitioner at the Allegany County Health Department.

Brown, who receives referrals from the school system, as well as family physicians, said the key to avoid hearing loss later in life is to “protect it now.”

“Keep the volume down on your personal listening device,” Brown said. “If you’re going to be using firearms or riding a four-wheeler, wear hearing protection. A helmet is not enough.”

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