Our genes may reveal more about speech-in-noise difficulty

Photo credit: Osvaldo Coelho Jr.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The scientific journal Nature recently published a genome-wide association study (GWAS) based on the UK Biobank, showing a polygenic architecture of speech-in-noise deficits in individuals with self-reported normal hearing.

Speech-in-noise difficulty is the difficulty many people in mid-life have following one conversation among many in a noisy environment.  The reported prevalence of this disorder ranges from 10-20%, but since testing for this problem is not part of screening audiometry, it may be much more common in middle-aged and older people. Speech-in-noise difficulty is thought to be the result of noise damage to connections between the cochlear hair cells and the auditory nerve.

The UK Biobank houses a collection of tissue samples from a large number of United Kingdom citizens. Genome-wide association studies try to find patterns of genes associated with different diseases or conditions. I lack the scientific background to understand the research methods and statistical analyses, but know that genome-wide association studies can provide helpful clues to guide more detailed research.

The one problem I have with this paper is that it relied on self-reported speech-in-noise difficulty, which may not accurately reflect actual speech-in-noise difficulty as measured by formal testing. Regardless, the research found that certain genes involved with specific brain proteins were associated with speech-in-noise difficulty. These genes are also associated with cognitive, metabolic and psychiatric conditions.

These findings are interesting, but my thought is that regardless of what genes one has, avoiding loud noise exposure will probably help prevent speech-in-noise difficulty in mid-life. That’s why I often state that if it sounds loud, it’s too loud and one’s auditory health is at risk. Turn down the volume, leave the noisy environment or use hearing protection and your ears will last a lifetime.

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