Scientists funded by The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), London, have discovered evidence of a gene that contributes to age-related hearing loss.

The research, just published in the journal Human Mutation, could eventually lead to treatments being developed to prevent age-related hearing loss, the charity believes.

Hearing loss is the most common sensory impairment among older people, affecting around 6.5 million people aged over 60 in the UK. Hearing loss erodes the quality of life for many, making it difficult for them to communicate with their family and friends, which can lead to increasing isolation, RNID reports. Currently, there is no way of identifying those at risk or preventing the onset of hearing loss.

The RNID-funded project, led by Professor Guy Van Camp at the University of Antwerp, tested the hearing of 645 people aged between 40 and 80. Genetic analysis of a gene called KCNQ4 showed significant differences in its sequence between those with a hearing loss and those without, which was confirmed in a separate study of a further 664 people. The findings indicate that KCNQ4, a gene known to function in the ear, contributes to age-related hearing loss. To confirm this, additional research needs to be carried out to identify the sequence changes that alter the way the gene works.

Dr Ralph Holme, RNID’s biomedical research manager, says: “Many people consider hearing loss as an inevitable part of ageing, rather than a potentially preventable condition. This research provides another important piece of the jigsaw in highlighting a gene associated with age-related hearing loss. It offers real hope that treatments will be found and we are optimistic that in the future people will no longer face the prospect of losing their hearing as they age.”

[SOURCE: RNID, August 25, 2006]