Hearing Loss: Does Gender Play a Role?

, University of Washington Medical Center; , University of Washington Medical Center, Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center


Medscape General Medicine. 1997;1(2) 

In This Article

Demographics: Scope of the Problem

Hearing impairment is the most common chronic handicap in the US. An estimated 20.3 million Americans 3 years of age or older have hearing trouble, according to 1990-1991 data collected from household interviews. Age-adjusted prevalence rates revealed a 14% increase in hearing impairment from 1971 to 1990-1991.[1] Significant numbers of American women are affected; more than 8 million women are estimated to have some degree of hearing trouble, and 2 million of those are able to hear, at best, only shouted words.[1]

Congenital hearing loss. One in 200 children are born with congenital hearing loss. At least one third, and perhaps as many as three fourths, of these losses have a genetic component.[2] Unfortunately, the diagnosis of congenital hearing loss usually is not made until the child reaches, on average, 2.5 years of age.[2] Children who are unable to hear well can have delays in emotional and personal development. It is not until 4 years of age that children develop an adult-like ability to discriminate clearly between speech and background sounds.[3] In children who have unremediated hearing handicaps, the ability to discriminate background noise from speech remains impaired, which can severely hinder a child's ability to develop normal speech and language skills. Learning disabilities and emotional difficulties may then ensue.

Noise-induced hearing loss. Young and middle-aged women are more at risk for hearing trouble now than ever before. Traditionally, women have not been considered to be at high risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Occupational noise exposure is the major risk factor for noise-induced hearing loss, and in the past, women have held proportionately fewer jobs that threaten hearing, such as factory and construction positions. Personal habits, such as listening to loud music, now heighten the threat of hearing loss among women. Those individuals who were exposed to loud music in the late 1960s as teenagers and young adults may account for a significant proportion of people in their sixth decade now presenting with hearing loss.[4] In fact, from 1971 to 1990-1991, the largest increase in hearing-impairment prevalence rates among women (66.3%) was among those 45 to 64 years of age.[1] It is estimated that up to 20% of hearing loss in female college students could be prevented by using proper noise-reduction precautions.[5]

The biggest challenge, however, is preventing and treating hearing impairment in the elderly population. An estimated 4.2 million women aged 65 years and older have difficulty hearing.[1] Persons over age 65, now comprising 13% of the US population, are the fastest-growing segment.[6] It is estimated that the number of persons aged 85 years and over, the so-called "oldest old," will grow from 3 million in 1988 to 5 million in the year 2000.[6] Only 9.7% of persons 65 years of age or older have normal hearing.[1]

Much of the disability that older people experience is due to a loss of sensory function, particularly the loss of sight and hearing. Addressing hearing loss in the elderly is important because it may enable these individuals to maintain independent living for a longer period of time.