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Healthy People 2010 Update: Preventing NIHL in Children
In October 2008, NIDCD participated in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services meeting on progress being made toward hearing health objectives set by Healthy People 2010, our national blueprint for better health. The following article summarizes information that NIDCD presented related to NIHL prevention in children.
A common concern among parents and grandparents is that the next generation of young people might be damaging their hearing by misusing personal stereo systems. But how real is this concern? Are there statistical data that support the assertion that young people are losing their hearing at an early age?
The NIDCD has a profound interest in finding the answer to these questions. One hearing objective of Healthy People 2010, for which the NIDCD has lead responsibility, is to reduce NIHL in young people under age 18. To measure progress toward this objective, NIDCD epidemiologists recently compared hearing data from two national health surveys conducted during different periods of time. The two surveys were the National Health Examination Survey, with data collected between 1963 and 1970, and the continuing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), with data collected between 1988 and 1994.
Hearing thresholds are the lowest possible levels of sound at which an individual can hear sounds at a given frequency, or pitch. When the hearing thresholds of children were compared, the data indicated that the hearing health of children ages 6 to 19 had actually improved over the years. American children had more high frequency hearing loss—which is where NIHL first occurs—in the earlier time period than the later period.
While this finding may be considered good news, it may not reflect the long-term hearing health of today’s youth. NIHL can increase over time, and susceptibility to NIHL can vary from person to person depending on one’s genes. NIHL often goes unnoticed for many years, even though damage has occurred. To establish a more detailed baseline of the hearing health of youth, the NIDCD— together with the National Center for Health Statistics—will continue to collect hearing-related data from youth participating in NHANES. The NHANES, which is conducted annually and includes audiometric evaluations, can provide data for estimating hearing loss, tinnitus, use of hearing protection and hearing aids, and risk factors for hearing loss by age group. Once these data are analyzed, the NIDCD can use the findings to improve prevention efforts by targeting education programs to high-risk groups.
What is known is that the potential for NIHL in children remains. Children frequently are exposed to sounds at potentially harmful decibel levels and for extended amounts of time. In addition, research studies supported by the NIDCD suggest that NIHL experienced at an early age may accelerate age-related hearing loss. Clearly, adolescents and young adults need to learn more about the risks and prevention of NIHL, as well as its long-term impact on their quality of life. Hearing the prevention message now can help them maintain healthy hearing for life.