Pilot screening programme finds one in three Kiwi teens suffers from hearing loss

That's higher than the global trend of one in five young people.

By Karyn Henger
A pilot programme to screen Kiwi teenagers' hearing has found an alarming rate of hearing loss among high school students.
The National Foundation for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NFDHH) released its Listen Up Screening Pilot findings today and they are confronting: As many as one in three year 9 pupils were found to have abnormal hearing. Meanwhile, more than 40 per cent of those who presented as having normal hearing experienced ringing in their ears – a possible precursor to tinnitus.
"This really is becoming a public health issue, and as a nation we need to address youth hearing loss immediately," says Natasha Gallardo, NFDHH chief executive.
"Once you lose your hearing, you cannot get it back. Yet the propensity for teenagers to put their hearing at risk is truly frightening. Parents, caregivers, teachers, employers – we all have to take urgent steps to help young people see the harm they might be doing."
NFDHH launched the screening pilot earlier this year to determine the potential risk of non-occupational noise-induced hearing loss in New Zealand adolescents. It also wanted to find out whether New Zealand was mirroring global youth hearing loss trends.
Globally, one in five young adults have some form of hearing loss - that's 30 per cent more than in the 1990s. And nearly 50 per cent of people aged 12-35 years old listen to unsafe levels of sound, through personal devices.
It has carried out screenings in three high schools – Rutherford College, Manurewa High School and Queen Charlotte College. Other schools are scheduled to follow.
Of the 479 year 9 pupils screened, 162 had an abnormal hearing screening result – that's 34 per cent, or one in three students. At Manurewa High School, it soared to 46 per cent, with 28 per cent of its screened pupils reporting that they listened to music at maximum volume for more than three hours a day.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends youths are not exposed to maximum levels for more than six minutes per week.Most students from all three schools were using either headphones or ear buds to listen to their devices.
NFDHH intends to lobby the Government for mandatory hearing screening of high school pupils as currently there are no compulsory checks after pre-school monitoring.
"We need a national programme to assess just how extreme youth hearing loss rates are, and identify children that are at risk early, as prevention and early detection are key," Gallardo says.
Safe listening levels depend on the loudness, length of time and frequency of the exposure. The highest safe sound level is 75 decibels up to a maximum of eight hours. So you could be exposed to the same level of loudness in 15 minutes of music at 100 dB as an industrial worker gets in an eight-hour day at 85 dB.
WHO projections suggest that unless action is taken, there will be 630 million people living with disabling hearing loss by the year 2030, with that number expected to grow to over 900 million by 2050.
Gollardo is also concerned that the stigma attached to wearing hearing aids could mean teenagers are less likely to seek help if they do suffer from hearing loss.
Earlier this year former Bachelor and Celebrity Treasure Island contestant Lily McManus revealed that she didn't wear her hearing aids for three years after being diagnosed at the age of 15 with a hearing impairment.
The now 22-year-old told Woman's Day, "It was a big blow to my confidence."
"But... if I can help anyone by talking about it and making them feel more comfortable about wearing their hearing aids, then my job is done."
Gollardo adds, "We know that 90 per cent of people with hearing loss experience feelings of isolation or depression. They feel excluded. Often young people will hide their hearing loss to feel just like everyone else. They don't wear their hearing aids and their education suffers.
"What we need to do now is try to prevent hearing loss where it can be so that less youths are having to face stigma.
"In the very near future there will be so many more young people with hearing loss. We need to be ready to support them. The challenge is educating youths about the dangers of prolonged use of devices so they start using safe listening practices that results in stemming the trend."