Audiologic characteristics in a sample of recently-separated military Veterans: The Noise Outcomes in Servicemembers Epidemiology Study (NOISE Study)
Military Service Members are often exposed to high levels of occupational noise, solvents, and other exposures that can be damaging to the auditory system. Little is known about hearing loss and how it progresses in Veterans following military service. This epidemiology study is designed to evaluate and monitor a cohort of Veterans for 20 years or more to determine how hearing loss changes over time and how those changes are related to noise exposure and other ototoxic exposures encountered during military service. Data reported here are from baseline assessments of the first 100 study participants (84 males; 16 females; mean age 33.5 years; SD 8.8; range 21–58). Each participant was asked to complete a comprehensive audiologic examination and self-report questionnaires regarding sociodemographic characteristics, noise and solvent exposures, health conditions common among post-deployment Veterans, and the social and emotional consequences of hearing loss. For this relatively young cohort, 29% exhibited hearing loss, defined as average hearing threshold >20 dB HL in the conventional audiometric range. Forty-two percent exhibited hearing loss in the extended-high-frequency audiometric range using the same criterion (average hearing threshold >20 dB HL). Certain factors were found to be associated with poorer hearing in both conventional and extended-high-frequency ranges, including age, type of military branch, years of military service, number of military deployments, noise exposure, tinnitus, and a positive screen for post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the majority of participants had hearing within normal limits, 27% reported a self-perceived mild/moderate hearing handicap and 14% reported a significant handicap. Further research is needed to identify a cause for this discrepancy in audiologic results versus self-report. The information obtained from this longitudinal study could be used in future resource planning with the goal of preventing, as much as possible, the development of hearing loss during military service, and the exacerbation of prevalent hearing loss after military service and over Veterans' lifetimes.