Patrick Holkins, seen here, started Hear@Tucson in Tucson, Ariz.
Patrick Holkins, seen here, started Hear@Tucson in Tucson, Ariz. (Photos courtesy of Patrick Holkins)

PITTSFIELD -- University of Arizona law student Patrick Holkins aims to offer encouragement and support to young people who have hearing loss. For Holkins, it's a very personal mission. He lost hearing in his left ear after a bout of bacterial meningitis at 3 years old. Over time, his hearing worsened, and he started to experience hearing loss in his right ear.

As a child growing up with hearing loss, Holkins did not find many resources for people like himself. He decided that in order to make an impact, he needed to take things into his own hands.

As a teenager, Holkins worked as a public policy intern for the Hearing Loss Association of America, the nation's largest support and advocacy group for people with hearing loss. As he got more involved with the association, he ended up forming the group's first young adult chapter in Boston while an undergraduate at Harvard University.

The chapter, Hear@Boston, became the first step in Holkins' dedication to raise awareness of and provide support to young people with hearing loss.

"It is difficult to be hard of hearing growing up, and you often find yourself associating with those who do not have any kind of hearing loss," Holkins said. "There wasn't much out there -- no point of reference for me."

For young people who often find it difficult to navigate the tricky journey to adulthood, hearing loss can only add to the challenges of growing up. The causes for hearing loss among young people vary greatly. From congenital problems to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) as a result of blaring loud music, there many ways young people can lose hearing.


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It's a widespread phenomenon. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 17 percent of all Americans have some degree of hearing loss. The same statistics show that hearing loss ranks as the third most widespread health issue among Americans, behind heart disease and arthritis.

Despite these statistics, hearing loss remains one of the most ignored health problems, especially among young people, said Robert J. LaCosta, a board-certified hearing aid specialist who owns the hEARt Ear Boutique in Lee.

LaCosta said young people may be reluctant to get tested for hearing problems, for a number of reasons -- from not wanting a hearing aid to not understanding the consequences of hearing loss at a young age.

"First of all, young people don't want to wear anything. Glasses, hearing aids, you name it," LaCosta said. "For a young person to invest in a hearing aid, they have to be extremely serious about their hearing."

LaCosta once met a young man who suffered hearing loss as a result of a car accident. An audiophile who loved music, the young man was very willing to wear his hearing aids which, through advances in modern technology, are virtually invisible, or at least barely noticeable on first glance, LaCosta said.

"In general, as people get older, they become a little less vain," LaCosta said. "There is a degree of pragmatism that comes with aging that makes you more open to solutions surrounding protecting your health."

It's this "it can't possibly happen to me," attitude that LaCosta said is reflected in a growing contemporary trend of young people damaging their hearing by playing loud music through earbuds that are planted deep within the ear.

This kind of damage would fall under the category of NIHL. NIHL results from damaging exposure to external sounds like loud music, or from household appliances like hair dryers. At safe-to-moderate levels, these sounds do not normally cause any damage, but when raised to a certain decibel reading, they can damage the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear that convert sound into electrical signals that travel directly to the brain. These hair cells cannot grow back, which is why damage done at a young age through the blaring of music on devices like iPods and MP3 players is a serious risk that not many young people take seriously.

The effect of hearing loss played a large role in Alyssa Terk's formative years. An ear, nose, and throat physician who specializes in treating infants, children and adolescents, Terk was in elementary school when she started to fail hearing exams in school.

A board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), Terk has progressive sensorineural hearing loss that is dominant in her family. At age 18, she started wearing bilateral hearing aids, and though her hearing loss was relatively mild at first, she eventually got bilateral cochlear implants after finishing her medical residency. For Terk, who works mostly with disadvantaged inner city children in Philadelphia, helping someone else hear is incredibly rewarding.

"I think there is still a stigma associated with wearing hearing aids in our society," Terk said. "I've learned that the more you advocate for yourself, the better off you will be -- you can't let other people's opinions hinder you."

Having hearing loss has certainly not hindered Holkins, who has been using a cochlear implant since August. While an intern at the HLAA, he founded Hearing Loss Nation, a social networking site designed specifically for young people with hearing loss to connect with one another.

He also started Hear.Now.South Africa during a year-off between Harvard and law school. Using a fellowship from Harvard, he spent 10 months in South Africa on the project that was originally envisioned as a a way to provide hearing health service to people in rural communities.

Not content to stop there, Holkins started Hear@Tucson, a community group that he formed in partnership with the University of Arizona Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences in Tucson, Ariz.

Like Terk, Holkins' experiences with hearing loss have informed his career ambitions. Following law school, he hopes to pursue civil rights law.

"It's important to have groups like Hear@Tucson that can provide support to young people," Holkins said. "It's the kind of support that you can only find in other people who share your experiences."

Can ear buds injure the ear?

While Robert J. LaCosta, a board-certified hearing aid specialist who owns the hEARt Ear Boutique in Lee, said it is still too early to see the long-term effects that modern music sharing technology can have on young people, recent studies have been paying close attention to the increased presence of hearing loss among younger populations.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, sounds at or above 85 decibels could potentially cause hearing loss. According to a study conducted by a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an MP3 player played at full volume can register at 100 decibels.

In a study released in 2010 by The Journal of the American Medical Association, the prevalence of hearing loss among a sample of young people aged 12 to 19 years old was greater from 2005 to 2006 than it was from a group surveyed between 1988 and 1994. Some degree of hearing loss was evident in 14.9 percent of the earlier survey group, compared to what was found among 19.5 percent of the more recent population sample.

Researchers have not made any definitive conclusions as to what caused this increase in hearing loss, but New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg agrees that earbuds are partly to blame. Earlier this month, the mayor announced a $250,000 social media initiative to curb young people's penchant to blast loud music on listening devices like iPods.