Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Physical similarities between family members are often all too easy to spot. Maybe you have your mother’s smile or your father’s sparkly eyes. You may even have been told you share a resemblance with someone in the family from generations ago. But what about those genetic similarities that you can’t see, such as a shared risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis or hearing loss?
Genes play a role in age-related hearing loss
Turns out that, yes, hearing loss—including age-related hearing loss—is influenced by your genes. In other words, you can inherit an increased risk of hearing loss as you get older.
While more research is needed, a large study of 376 Caucasian families found that “genetic factors play a large role in age-related hearing loss.” Also, while overall men have more hearing loss (largely due to exposure to noise in traditionally male-dominated work sectors, such as aviation or the military), the study found that women’s hearing loss was more influenced by genes than men.
However, it’s hard to weed out a lot of factors that can affect studies like this—notably, the behaviors that expose people to hearing damage. Since families often share occupations or habits, it’s not 100% possible to know if it’s the genes or the shared behaviors that are linked to hearing loss. It’s probably a combination of both.
Family history and rare types of hearing loss
If your parents or grandparents lost their hearing at an early age or have always had trouble with balance or dizziness, it’s important to know why. Some types of hearing loss are the result of age and/or exposure to excessive noise. Others, like the following disorders, can be strongly hereditary.
Otosclerosis is the abnormal bone growth of the middle ear, which usually affects the stapes bone. Symptoms of the disorder include gradual hearing loss, most often difficulty hearing low-pitched sounds. Others may experience dizziness, balance issues or tinnitus.
The odds of developing otosclerosis vary depending upon the family’s history with the disease and is often passed down from parent to child. Children who have one parent with otosclerosis have a 25 percent chance of developing the disease. The risk rises to 50 percent if both parents have the disease. White, middle-aged women are most at risk.
The disorder typically causes conductive hearing loss, which can often be corrected with surgery. Less commonly, otosclerosis causes damage to the sensory cells and nerve fibers in the inner ear, causing sensorineural hearing loss.
People who have hearing loss and retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an eye disease, may have a disorder known as Usher syndrome. According to the National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Usher syndrome accounts for 50 percent of hereditary deaf-blindness cases.
There are three types of Usher syndrome, each inherited as an autosomal recessive disorder from the parents:
- Type 1: Those with Type 1 Usher syndrome are born with profound hearing loss or deafness and severe balance problems.
- Type 2: Those with Type 2 Usher syndrome are born with moderate to severe hearing loss and normal balance. RP is usually diagnosed in late adolescence.
- Type 3: Those with Type 3 Usher syndrome are born with normal hearing and balance, with loss of hearing and vision beginning to develop in adolescence.
Although there is no cure for Usher syndrome, its symptoms can be treated or managed. Treatment for hearing loss may include hearing aids or cochlear implants along with assistive listening devices and auditory training.
Children who develop hearing loss may have Pendred syndrome, a genetic disorder inherited from the parents which may also include balance and thyroid problems. Families with medical histories of early hearing loss or those with a history of goiters and hearing loss may be carriers of the mutated gene causing this recessive trait. According to the National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), this disorder accounts for five to ten percent of all inherited hearing loss.
An otolaryngologist can diagnose Pendred syndrome. Although there is no cure, it can be treated. Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, the individual may benefit from wearing hearing aids or receiving a cochlear implant.
It’s important to know family history
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), knowing your family’s history of chronic disease is the first step toward reducing your risk of developing it, too. The CDC recommends making a list of immediate family members, then asking them if they’ve had any chronic or serious diseases as well as what age they developed it. Once you know the answers, share it with other family members and your family physician. This information can help your doctor determine which screening tests you need and at what age these screenings should begin.
But don’t stop there. One you know your risks, take steps to reduce them. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise and not smoking are all ways to improve your overall health. Work with your family doctor to identify what you can do to minimize your chances of following in your family’s footsteps.
Knowledge is power
Although the above disorders are rare, it’s important to know your family’s hearing health history and share it with your family physician as well as your hearing healthcare professional. Untreated hearing loss can increase your risk for developing a variety of other health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. Annual evaluations can detect changes in your hearing health and provide your medical professionals with the information they need to keep all members of your family hearing their best for years to come.
To schedule a hearing test with a trusted hearing clinic, visit our consumer-reviewed directory of hearing clinics to find a provider near you.