Background: Hearing loss has been associated with cognitive and functional decline in older adults and may be amenable to rehabilitative interventions, but national estimates of hearing loss prevalence and hearing aid use in older adults are unavailable.
Methods: We analyzed data from the 2005-2006 cycle of the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, which is the first cycle to ever incorporate hearing assessment in adults aged 70 years and older. Audiometry was performed in 717 older adults, and data on hearing aid use, noise exposure, medical history, and demographics were obtained from interviews. Analyses incorporated sampling weights to account for the complex sampling design and yield results that are generalizable to the U.S. population.
Results: The prevalence of hearing loss defined as a speech frequency pure tone average of more than 25 dB in the better ear was 63.1% (95% confidence interval: 57.4-68.8). Age, sex, and race were the factors most strongly associated with hearing loss after multivariate adjustment, with black race being substantially protective against hearing loss (odds ratio 0.32 compared with white participants [95% confidence interval: 0.19-0.53]). Hearing aids were used in 40.0% (95% confidence interval: 35.1-44.8) of adults with moderate hearing loss, but in only 3.4% (95% confidence interval: 0.8-6.0) of those with a mild hearing loss.
Conclusion: Hearing loss is prevalent in nearly two thirds of adults aged 70 years and older in the U.S. population. Additional research is needed to determine the epidemiological and physiological basis for the protective effect of black race against hearing loss and to determine the role of hearing aids in those with a mild hearing loss.