Health

Study shows more about children's hearing loss

Four-year research looks at effects on social, academic skills

Haley Walstrom, 12, is among the children involved in a University of Iowa study on hearing loss in children and how it impacts learning, language skills and social skills. Photographed with her mother, Michele Walstrom, at their home in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Haley Walstrom, 12, is among the children involved in a University of Iowa study on hearing loss in children and how it impacts learning, language skills and social skills. Photographed with her mother, Michele Walstrom, at their home in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A newborn hearing screening discovered that Haley Walstrom had mild hearing loss in her left ear and severe hearing loss in her right ear.

It put the now 12-year-old and her family on a journey that ultimately lead her to participate in a four-year study she hopes will help other families. The study was the first of its kind, a long-term look at a population that is lacking research — children who experienced mild to severe hearing loss.

The results were published in the November/December issue of the journal “Ear and Hearing,” published by the American Auditory Society.

“I looked into resources we'd need — hearing aids, annual screenings,” recalled her mom, Michele Walstrom of Cedar Rapids. “But there was always a need for more information. I felt like I really had to seek it out.”

Haley, Michele and Haley's dad, Dean, were glad to take part in the study — Haley even got one of her friends, who has normal hearing, to participate in the control group.

“It's important to participate in things like this,” Michele Walstrom said. “It heightens awareness about these kids and the kinds of option available.”

There is a lot of research out there that looks at the importance of early identification and intervention in deaf children and children who experience hearing loss, said Beth Walker, a communication-sciences and disorders assistant professor at the University of Iowa and a researcher involved with the study.

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The National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management reports that detecting and treating hearing loss at birth for one child saves $400,000 in special education costs by the time that child graduates from high school.

Likewise, there's plenty of research that looks at how being deaf affects children, she said.

But researchers from the University of Iowa, Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb., and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were curious about the outcomes of children who had hearing loss. They followed the children — aged six months to seven years old — from 2008 to 2012 to see how hearing loss influences language and speech development, social skills, and academic success.

“We found there is some control over these things based on how well fitting the hearing aids are and how often they're worn,” Walker said.

Key findings from the study include:

• Children with mild-to-severe hearing loss are at risk for depressed language development. That risk increases with the severity of unaided hearing levels.

• Well-fitting hearing aids reduce that risk and provide protection against language delay.

• More than half of children's hearing aids were not fit optimally.

• Fitting children for a hearing aid early on leads to better early language outcomes. But later-fitted children demonstrated accelerated growth patterns once they receive hearing aids.

The study looked at a very specific section of children, Walker said — kids in English-speaking homes that have hearing loss in both ears. Researchers excluded children who had an additional disability, such as vision loss.

The goal was to recruit 450 children to participate in the study, but Walker said this population of children is a bit trickier to find — some parents aren't aware their child is experiencing hearing loss and these children may not receive any special education at their school. So the study ultimately wound up with 317 kids from 17 states.

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They conducted the same tests and exercises with 117 children who have normal hearing to compare results.

Researchers conducted language tests, looked at speech development and reading outcomes, and asked the children questions about social development, including friendships, Walker said.

A big van equipped with office furniture would roll up once or twice a year at Haley Walstrom's house. She'd go inside to answer questions, play games, read books and talk about her experiences at school, she said.

Once a year her mother would fill out a survey, which asked questions about resources, if they saw an audiologist and what kind of services Haley's school offered.

What researchers found is that many children didn't consistently wear their hearing aids and many didn't have their hearing aids optimally fit — meaning it wasn't set to the prescriptive targets as precisely as it could be, Walker said.

“That was an ethical dilemma,” Walker said, explaining the researchers ultimately chose not to intervene and better fit the kids' hearing aids. Instead they printed out sheets for each of the children with targets as well as where his or her hearing aid was set to be sent home with parents.

Researchers are seeking to secure another grant to continue the study, looking more closely at how children's reading skills develop later in elementary school and to get a better idea on how hearing aids affect social lives in junior high school.

“There's such a stigma attached to wearing hearing aids,” Walker said. “We can really learn more as they get older.”

But Haley Walstrom hasn't run into any problems yet.

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“People might think that. But I've never been bullied,” she said. “Everyone just treats me like a normal student.”

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