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I Can't Believe What I'm Hearing: New Guidelines For Older Ears

Male Hearing Loss

It just seems like common sense: Screening older adults for hearing loss is a cheap, effective, harmless way to determine if their hearing ability has worsened and might be helped with a hearing aid.

And yet the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force won't recommend routine hearing exams for those 50 and older. They won't even commit to recommending that doctors ask about any hearing problems in older adults.

Does this make sense?

The task force is a panel of medical experts, appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that examines current research and makes recommendations about a range of screening procedures, from mammograms to PSA tests.

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Last week, they updated their 1996 recommendations on hearing exams -- which had called for periodic screening -- with new guidelines posted in the Annals of Internal Medicine that say, basically, that there's "insufficient evidence" for them to draw a conclusion for or against the tests.

This despite the fact that the panel acknowledges that "hearing loss is a common health problem among adults aged 50 or older (that) can affect social functioning and quality of life."

"We just don't have enough evidence to show there would be a benefit," Albert Siu, M.D., a vice chairman of the task force and chairman of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told the New York Times.  "Hearing loss hasn't been adequately addressed in the research literature."

The scarcity of research on hearing loss is remarkable given that hearing loss is the third most common health condition affecting older adults, behind hypertension and arthritis, notes Times reporter Judith Graham, writing in the paper's New Old Age blog.

But the panel's conclusion is "not altogether surprising," she adds, "given that this condition has traditionally been considered a natural consequence of aging and that it remains under-diagnosed and untreated in older adults."

According to ABC News' story on the recommendations, 20 to 40 percent of adults older than 50 -- and more than 80 percent of adults older than 80 -- show some evidence of hearing loss.

Plus, there has been a number of recent studies linking hearing loss to poor cognitive functioning, falls, social isolation and the onset of dementia in older adults.

But maybe there will be a silver lining to the panel's reluctance to recommend a routine hearing exam.

Perhaps it will goad more researchers to study the negative effects of hearing loss on the huge number of aging adults in this country, as well as the benefits of hearing tests and hearing aids.

And maybe that will help change one of the biggest roadblocks to older adults doing something about hearing loss: The fact that hearing aids, which can be expensive, are still not covered by Medicare or private insurers.

In other health news:

Salmonella linked to Indiana cantaloupe causes two deaths, sickens 140. Reuters reports that a salmonella outbreak blamed on cantaloupe grown in Indiana has killed two people in Kentucky and sickened some 140 people from 20 states, according to the warning from the CDC. Health officials on Friday urged consumers to throw away melons bought recently from the region. The outbreak began in early July; 31 people have been hospitalized.

FDA advises scan for patients with heart device wires made by St. Jude. The Food and Drug Administration is advising patients who have heart devices that include wires made by St. Jude Medical Inc., to have an X-ray or another type of scan to test the wire's insulation, USA Today reports. The FDA is recommending the scans for patients who have implantable heart devices with Riata or Riata ST wires.

U.S. panel likely to make HIV tests routine. Sources tell Reuters that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is expected to make a  new recommendation by the end of the year that doctors routinely test patients for HIV, a move that would fundamentally change how the disease is detected and treated. The move would update the panel's 2005 recommendation leaving the decision up to doctors.

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