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U of M researchers: Studies overestimate hearing loss in teens

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Hearing loss?
In this 2005 file photo, a college student listens to music on her iPod and reads before class. Some experts says the popularity of portable music players and earbuds has led to more hearing loss among young people. But a new study from the University of Minnesota says those findings may be overblown.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Researchers at the University of Minnesota believe recent estimates of hearing loss among teenagers might be too high.

A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 20 percent of teens in the U.S. have noise-induced hearing loss.

But Bert Schlauch, a professor at the university's Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, said measurement error could be to blame for some of that. 

"We believe that many fewer children have hearing loss than what's been reported in these other studies," Schlauch said Monday. "I think it's important that we have education that intense sounds can cause noise-induced hearing loss, but we don't have -- at least at this date -- the problem that is being reported in the news."

Schlauch and fellow researcher Edward Carney looked at some of the same data used for the Journal of the American Medical Association study. Then they did computer simulations modeling the statistical properties of hearing tests, finding that up to 10 percent of children are falsely identified as having hearing loss.

Schlauch said the other studies haven't adequately addressed the issue of false positives or measurement error, which is especially common when trying to detect slight hearing loss.

"If I bring someone in and measure their hearing, and then they take the headphones off and walk around outside the room and sit back down, if I were to measure their hearing again, I might not get the same answer," Schlauch said.

Schlauch said distractions, inconsistencies in hearing testing equipment and other variables can cause the false positives.

In a separate study, Schlauch and other researchers measured the hearing of students in the U of M marching band. After being tested multiple times, some of the hearing loss detected in some of the members disappeared when averaged out over time.