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If you are one of those hearing care professionals who secretly groan when your patients tell you they think their hearing loss is due to the chronic ear infections they suffered as children, groan no longer. They may be right.

According to recent research from Newcastle University published in the September 15 edition of Ear and Hearing, common childhood infections, such as tonsillitis and ear infections, may lead to hearing loss later in life.

The study, funded by charity Action on Hearing Loss, is part of the ongoing 1947 Newcastle Thousand Families Study which monitored 1142 Newcastle-born babies from 1947 to the present day, measuring their health, growth, and development. Now in their sixties a quarter of them have had their hearing tested.

“Our findings show that those who suffered from infections as a child were more likely to have a hearing loss in their 60s,” says Mark Pearce, who holds a PhD in epidemiology and led the study at the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University. “Reducing childhood infection rates may help prevent hearing loss later in life.

“This study shows the importance of the Newcastle birth cohorts, with the study initially focusing on childhood infections,” continues Pearce. “The study is nearly 70 years old and continues to make a major contribution to understanding health conditions, which is only possible through the continued contribution of cohort members.”

Infections such as tonsillitis, ear infections, and multiple episodes of bronchitis or other severe respiratory infections during the first year of life were linked to hearing loss when people were over 60. These links persisted, even when factors known to influence hearing, such as a noisy working environment, having an ear operation, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds, were taken into account.

“Hearing loss affects as many as 1 in 6 people across the UK and is often seen as just another sign of getting old,” says Dr Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research at Action on Hearing Loss. “However, the study shows that this is not necessarily the case; illnesses in childhood could have long-lasting consequences for hearing in later life. Hearing loss can have a big impact on a person’s life, isolating them from family and friends, and has been linked to other health conditions like depression and dementia. These findings remind us that it’s never too early to think about protecting your hearing.”

The paper, “The Effect of Childhood Infection on Hearing Function at Age 61 to 63 Years in the Newcastle Thousand Families Study” was authored by Fiona Pearson, Kay D. Mann, Adrian Rees, Adrian Davis, and Mark Pearce.