Association of skin color, race/ethnicity, and hearing loss among adults in the USA

J Assoc Res Otolaryngol. 2012 Feb;13(1):109-17. doi: 10.1007/s10162-011-0298-8. Epub 2011 Nov 29.


Epidemiologic studies of hearing loss in adults have demonstrated that the odds of hearing loss are substantially lower in black than in white individuals. The basis of this association is unknown. We hypothesized that skin pigmentation as a marker of melanocytic functioning mediates this observed association and that skin pigmentation is associated with hearing loss independent of race/ethnicity. We analyzed cross-sectional data from 1,258 adults (20-59 years) in the 2003-2004 cycle of the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey who had assessment of Fitzpatrick skin type and pure-tone audiometric testing. Audiometric thresholds in the worse hearing ear were used to calculate speech- (0.5-4 kHz) and high-frequency (3-8 kHz) pure-tone averages (PTA). Regression models were stratified by Fitzpatrick skin type or race/ethnicity to examine the association of each factor with hearing loss independent of the other. Models were adjusted for potential confounders (demographic, medical, and noise exposure covariates). Among all participants, race/ethnicity was associated with hearing thresholds (black participants with the best hearing followed by Hispanics and then white individuals), but these associations were not significant in analyses stratified by skin color. In contrast, in race-stratified analyses, darker-skinned Hispanics had better hearing than lighter-skinned Hispanics by an average of -2.5 dB hearing level (HL; 95% CI, -4.8 to -0.2) and -3.1 dB HL (95% CI, -5.3 to -0.8) for speech and high-frequency PTA, respectively. Associations between skin color and hearing loss were not significant in white and black participants. Our results demonstrate that skin pigmentation is independently associated with hearing loss in Hispanics and suggest that skin pigmentation as a marker of melanocytic functioning may mediate the strong association observed between race/ethnicity and hearing loss.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Audiometry, Pure-Tone
  • Cohort Studies
  • Ethnic Groups / statistics & numerical data*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Hearing Loss / ethnology*
  • Hispanic Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Melanocytes
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys / statistics & numerical data
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk Factors
  • Skin Pigmentation*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult