By Kathryn Doyle
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - For young kids who are hard of hearing, the longer they wear a hearing aid, the better their speech and language skills, according to a new study.
"Parents get some conflicting information, especially if their kids only have mild hearing loss: should they get hearing aids now or wait until later," said Mary Pat Moeller, an audiologist. She worked on the study at the Center for Childhood Deafness at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.
But even kids in the study with only mild hearing loss had significantly improved speaking skills if they wore hearing aids, Moeller told Reuters Health. And the longer they wore them, the more speech improved.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies suggest anywhere from less than one percent to almost 15 percent of U.S. children have hearing loss.
For the new report, the researchers analyzed data from 180 hard of hearing three- and five-year-olds, almost all of whom had been fitted with hearing aids. Kids were evaluated with speech, language and articulation tests.
The researchers found that the more a hearing aid improved a child's hearing, the better he or she scored on the tests. And the longer kids had worn a hearing aid, the better their scores - especially among those whose hearing improved most with a hearing aid.
The relationship held true for kids with varying degrees of hearing loss, according to findings published in JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery.
"That may be because hearing aids bring those with severe hearing loss up to moderate levels, and those with moderate loss up to mild," co-author J. Bruce Tomblin, of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, told Reuters Health. "The change in hearing is about the same."
"Kids with mild losses can appear as though they're getting along okay so it's easier to be casual about it," he said. "But hearing aids do in fact have an influence."
The speech assessment scores kids on a scale similar to an IQ test, he said, and hearing aids seem to take kids from somewhere in the low-average area to "very much average."
That's not to say kids can't "catch up" in their speech and language development if they start using hearing aids later on, Tomblin said. Some researchers argue that early childhood is a "critical period" for kids' exposure to language, but he said he doesn't necessarily subscribe to that theory.
There is now the technology to fit hearing aids for children as young as one month old, Moeller said, and these results suggest the earlier a child gets a hearing aid, the better.
Hearing aids must be well-fitted by an audiologist, as they were in this study, she said. Fitting a child with a stronger hearing aid than necessary can further damage hearing.
Kids with mild hearing loss can benefit from hearing aids beyond improvements in speech and language; their quality of life and overall functioning often improve as well, said Dr. Judith E. Cho Lieu.
Lieu, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, was not involved with the new study.
Still, "Placement of hearing aids alone is not sufficient for acquisition of normal speech and language," Lieu told Reuters Health in an email.
"There are likely to be multiple other factors that were not included in this study's analysis that affect speech and language development in young children," she said. Those could include kids' race and thinking and memory skills, for instance.
The new results do not apply to deaf children, who were not the subject of the study, Tomblin noted. Deaf children may learn American Sign Language or receive cochlear implants, but hard of hearing children do not qualify for cochlear implants, he said.
"The impact of these language skills we're talking about have not gone into effect in schooling yet," since the study only addressed kids up to age five, he said.
"We hypothesize that the benefits may be even better in the classroom, since language skills are so important for learning," he said.
Hearing aids for children can cost around $8,500, but prices vary widely by brand, Moeller said.
The benefit the child gets is probably worth the cost, Tomblin said.
"The big message for parents and for pediatricians and others is to help reinforce the importance that the child gets a hearing aid, that it is well fit, and that the child wears it," he said.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1shzoZx JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery, online April 3, 2014.