Mar 7, 2024 - Health

Hearing loss, mapped

Hearing loss prevalence
Data: Sound Check; Map: Alice Feng/Axios Visuals

Hearing loss is more common in rural areas than urban ones, according to a recent study seeking to estimate the condition's prevalence down to the county level.

Why it matters: It's a surprising finding, given cities' reputations as awash in constant noise from cars, buses, firetrucks, etc. — and one with important public health implications.

Driving the news: The federally funded and peer-reviewed study, from nonpartisan research group NORC at the University of Chicago and published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health — Americas, found that more than 1 in 9 Americans experience at least mild hearing loss in both ears.

  • The condition is closely tied to age: an estimated 8.9% of Americans ages 35-64 experience hearing loss, compared to 72.7% of those age 75 or older.

Yes, but: Other factors also play a role, including the kind of community where someone lives.

  • Hearing loss is more prevalent in rural areas, per the study. It's unclear exactly why, but exposure to factory or farming equipment could be contributing.
  • Rural areas also tend to suffer from inadequate health care access, meaning residents may have trouble getting the treatment they need for hearing conditions.

Between the lines: Race and gender are also factors.

  • An estimated 14.6% of white, non-Hispanic Americans suffer from hearing loss, compared to 6.2% of Black Americans.
  • And an estimated 13.1% of men experience hearing loss, compared to 10.1% of women.

How it works: The study is based on merged data from the 2001-2012 and 2015-2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect public health data from interviews, examinations and lab testing.

  • The researchers updated that survey data to match 2019 U.S. population estimates.
  • They also used statistical modeling to estimate hearing loss down to the state and county level, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and other sources. (See the full methodology here.)

Worthy of your time: You can go deeper on the study's results at Sound Check, a snazzy website built around its findings.

The bottom line: While these geographic and socioeconomic breakdowns are vital for policymakers and others, "hearing loss is a problem everywhere," the study's lead author, David Rein, tells Axios.

  • "Even if you look at a place like Washington, D.C., where the prevalence is the lowest of any metro area in the country, you're still talking about almost 400,000 people with hearing loss," says Rein, senior fellow and director of NORC's Public Health Analytics Program.
  • "It's something that affects all groups and affects all of us as we age."
Go deeper