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American Hearing Loss In Decline

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In this age of iPhones and earbuds, you would think Americans would be suffering from more and more hearing loss. But a surprising new study indicates that hearing loss is actually in decline in the United States. Audiologist Gregory Flamme is co-author of the study published this month in JAMA Otolaryngology. He joins us from Portland. Welcome.

GREGORY FLAMME: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Were you surprised as I was by this news?

FLAMME: Well, I think it's just a moment where we have an opportunity to share good news about the status of hearing within the United States. We have had a lot of things that we've put into place to try and reduce the amount of hearing loss, and we might be seeing some of the advantages of those things coming along.

WERTHEIMER: And what would they be?

FLAMME: A few things that we've been doing in terms of preventive techniques would be to raise awareness about the effects of noise with respect to hearing loss and to work on such things as reducing and improving medical management of diseases related to hearing loss and also, of course, reducing smoking, which is - has a lot of health benefits, but it seems to also relate to hearing impairment.

WERTHEIMER: I gather from this study that one of the places where people used to lose their hearing was heavy manufacturing.

FLAMME: I think that one of the things that has been very nice to know is that we've had declining incidence of hearing loss among noise-exposed workers. Now, in addition to that, the numbers of noisy jobs seem to have reduced over time.

WERTHEIMER: Which is not necessarily good news.

FLAMME: No, that's correct. But among those people that are noise-exposed workers, the incidence of hearing loss seems to be going down a little bit, and that's always nice to hear.

WERTHEIMER: Why? Why is it doing that?

FLAMME: Well, I think that there have been increases in the use of hearing protection within that population. And also I think that there have been some things with automation, as well as some noise reduction techniques on factory floors.

WERTHEIMER: As a person who professionally wears headphones all the time, I want to know why headphone use has not led us to greater hearing loss. I feel all the time that it's heading me that way.

FLAMME: Well, and for people who work in an environment where they use headphones a lot, it is definitely important to monitor for changes in hearing. But for people that are leisure users of earphones and personal music players, it turns out that relatively few people listen to these devices loud enough or long enough to produce a permanent hearing impairment.

WERTHEIMER: So if headphones aren't as dangerous as I thought they were, and fewer people are exposed to industrial noise, what still exists as a threat to hearing?

FLAMME: Things like firearm use. That's also preventable as a source of hearing impairment. These things can create a permanent hearing loss instantly. And then in addition to that, any kind of noisy environment where you find yourself needing to raise your voice in order to be heard when you're talking with somebody maybe an arm's length away - construction noises, a number of activities and hobbies, music-listening and so on - can, with repeated exposure, cause hearing loss over time.

WERTHEIMER: Are we at a high point? Is it going to get any better than it is now?

FLAMME: The main impact and the main finding of this current work is that age-related hearing loss is modifiable, and it can be delayed. These effects tended to cross all age categories.

WERTHEIMER: Oh.

FLAMME: So this was not just in the older adult age group. This was across the board. So how that will play out over the years is something that - well, I can take some hope from it, but I would like to make sure that we monitor it and see how it all turns out.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Gregory Flamme is co-author of a newly published study on hearing loss in Americans. He joined us from Portland, Ore. Thank you very much.

FLAMME: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.