METHODOLOGY: Questionnaires were sent every two years to 116,430 women — nurses, actually, as the participants were part of the Nurses’ Health Study II — who were aged 31-48 in 1995, when the study began. Each time they responded, the woman were asked to report how often, on average, they took aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. By 2009, 77,956 women were still responding to the survey; and 23.8 percent of them reported that they were experience hearing problems. After excluding those whose hearing problems had begun before 1995, those who had a history of cancer, and those who experience tinnitus, the researchers narrowed the respondents down to 10,012 women and analyzed the association between their loss of hearing and their use of the three analgesics.
RESULTS: When the study began, 69 percent of the women reported using NSAIDs (a category which includes ibuprofen — they were asked about ibuprofen specifically beginning in 1999), 62 percent used acetaminophen, and 30 percent used aspirin. After adjusting for a variety of risk factors for hearing loss, including age, race, BMI, alcohol consumption, the intake of various vitamins and nutrients, physical activity, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, and menopausal status, the analysis indicated that the combined use of all three analgesics increased the women’s risk of hearing loss by 34 percent.
Regular use (greater than two times per week) of ibuprofen and acetaminophen were associated with an overall 17 and 9 percent increase in the risk of hearing loss, respectively. When compared to once a week use, more frequent use of ibuprofen increased the risk of hearing loss to up to 24 percent for everyday use. With acetaminophen, this risk also increased to 21 percent for 4-5 days of use per week, but dropped to only 8 percent for everyday use. The relationship between the use of these two drugs and hearing loss was stronger in women under the age of 50, but only reached statistical significance for daily ibuprofen use, which increased the risk of hearing loss in younger women by 48 percent.
A significant increase in hearing loss was not found for regular use of aspirin.
CONCLUSION: Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen regularly was associated with increased risk of hearing loss in women, and the risk generally increased with the frequency of use.
LIMITATIONS: Hearing loss was not evaluated clinically, as it had been in a similar study on men. Since an association between hearing loss and aspirin use was seen in men (their risk increased by 12 percent), this might be an indication that the self-reporting was less reliable. It is unclear whether this, as opposed to a gender difference in how analgesics affect hearing, was responsible for the discrepancy. The authors were also unable to take lifetime noise exposure, large amounts of which would likely cause hearing loss, into account, nor were they able to obtain information about dosage for all participants.
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The full study, “Analgesic Use and the Risk of Hearing Loss in Women,” will be published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.