November 6, 2016

What Did You Say?

Examining hearing loss.

Peter N. Landless

Q: I’m in my late teens and struggling to communicate with my father. We’re best friends, but he doesn’t always hear what I say (although I think he’s listening). My paternal grandfather became deaf as he grew older. Is deafness hereditary? Will I lose my hearing?

A:Communication depends not only on listening but on the ability to hear and be heard. So many of us take the five senses for granted—until we begin to lose them.

There are many causes of deafness. When hearing loss is present from birth, we speak of congenital deafness. Genetic factors account for more than 50 percent of congenital deafness; simply stated, it may be transmitted through one parent (dominant gene) or both parents (recessive gene), or linked to the X chromosome and passed on to males but not females. There are also rarer genetic syndromes in which hearing loss may be a feature. Nongenetic causes of congenital deafness may be related to illnesses suffered by the mother during pregnancy, including viral infections, maternal diabetes, and exposure to toxins.

Another common cause of hearing impairment in children is recurrent and untreated infection, especially of the middle ear, or otitis media. Often the deafness is temporary, but it may become permanent if not diagnosed and appropriately treated. Surgical intervention may sometimes be required.

Other common causes of hearing loss include exposure to loud noises, such as industrial machinery and power tools. Sudden loud noises such as gunfire and explosions can cause temporary and sometimes permanent deafness. I had the unpleasant experience of being in a vehicle that detonated three land mines; my eardrums ruptured, and I was unable to hear well for about two weeks. By God’s grace my hearing recovered, as miraculously as my life had been spared during this life-changing event.

The most common cause of hearing loss is age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis. This often runs in families and usually affects both ears. Your father possibly falls into this category. Most adults will experience some degree of hearing loss with age, which may be progressive. According to a 2011 study, almost 45 percent of Americans between the ages of 60 to 69 suffer from hearing loss. Unfortunately, fewer than half of those who complain of hearing loss seek professional help. It’s important to see an ear specialist, be tested (audiogram), and ensure that it is not just wax buildup. If it’s not, then a person can benefit from the wonderful technology that has allowed hearing aids to prevent our suffering in silence.

Young people in this connected age live with earbuds or headphones as an almost permanent fixture, and loud music is taking its toll because studies show an alarming increase in adolescent deafness. This may well be related to long-term exposure to loud music, so keep the volume down!

Most important: always listen for the voice of God’s Spirit: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’ ” (Isa. 30:21).

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.