If you or a loved one suffers from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), you are far from alone. It is estimated that between 10 million and 40 million adults in the United States have some signs of NIHL. Because noise-induced hearing loss typically comes on gradually, you may not realize right away that you are experiencing NIHL. The first signs are typically the sense that sounds are muffled or distorted, difficulty understanding spoken conversation, or the frequent need to increase the volume on the TV or radio.
You may be more likely to experience noise-induced hearing loss due to lifestyle factors like your job, where you live, and the type of activities you participate in. For example, job environments like construction, military, manufacturing, airline pilots and crew, and landscaping can all include loud noises that can lead to NIHL. Even short-term exposure to loud noises, like a concert or sporting event, can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss.
In addition to these lifestyle factors, new research also indicates that your genes may play a role in whether you suffer from NIHL. For several years, researchers and hearing healthcare professionals have been aware that genetics can make certain people more susceptible to deafness or hearing loss. Until recently, however, the audiology world was unaware that genetics can also impact how susceptible a person might be to noise-induced hearing loss.
The mechanics of hearing and hearing loss are complex. NIHL is characterized by the damage or destruction of certain parts of the ear, such as the inner hair cells or the tympanic membrane. Researchers have identified 34 genes that, due to variants, may be related to human noise-induced hearing loss. These genes include proteins involved in stereociliary function and maintenance of the endolymph potassium gradient. Some NIHL variant genes regulate other genes, while others are involved in cell-to-cell communication. Furthermore, a portion of the NIHL gene variants are involved in oxidative stress response.
When these gene variants are present, they may interfere with the normal function of the ear and its complex structures. They may also prevent the structures of the ear from properly counteracting noise exposure and repairing its subsequent damage. Therefore, people with these gene variants are more likely to experience noise-induced hearing loss.
At this time, a number of studies related to genetic susceptibility to NIHL have been conducted using animals. These studies show promise and indicate that genes can indeed play a significant role in NIHL. Conducting such studies on humans proves difficult because of the wide variety of lifestyle factors that also affect a person’s likelihood to experience noise-induced hearing loss. Regardless, researchers remain hopeful that this new research will prove helpful in lowering the risk of NIHL and pinpointing the genes and risk factors associated with this condition.
Researchers have also explored the possibility that certain people may have a genetic susceptibility to tinnitus as well. Although tinnitus can be linked to hearing loss in some cases, there has been no evidence so far that genetics play a role in tinnitus.
To learn more about noise-induced hearing loss and the role genetics can play in hearing loss, we invite you to contact our hearing specialist today. We look forward to caring for you.