Kids who have survived cancer in Louisville have a higher risk of hearing loss – and that can lead to poor reading skills, according to a new study from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Survivors with Hearing Loss
Beating the odds and surviving a brain tumor is a celebratory occasion for anybody fortunate enough to see their disease go into remission. But for the youngest survivors, there is a higher risk of reading difficulties when severe hearing loss occurs during the course of treatment.
Researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital conducted an international study of 260 children and adolescents who survived brain tumors, including 64 with severe hearing loss, to determine how well they performed on skills that are the foundations of reading. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, indicated that the patients with severe hearing loss performed more poorly on all eight key measures examined, including letter-word identification, information processing speed, working memory and phonological skills, than those who did not have a hearing impairment. Their greatest difficulties involved slower processing speed and phonological skills (the ability to use sound in order to decode words). This impedes their ability to read at an age-appropriate level.
“Reading is a skill that takes a long time to learn and that we depend on for learning our entire life,” senior and corresponding author Heather Conklin, Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Psychology, explained. “There had been hints in the scientific literature that reading was declining in pediatric brain tumor survivors and that hearing loss may be a contributor. But this is the first study to identify the key cognitive components that lead to reading problems.”
Brain Tumors and Hearing Loss
Brain and spinal cord tumors are the second most common cancers to affect children, following leukemia. About 25 percent of children diagnosed with cancer in Louisville will suffer from one of these types of tumor.
The St. Jude study revealed that 32 percent of brain tumor patients developed severe hearing loss following treatment, even when a commonly-prescribed drug called amifostine, which is designed to protect the tiny hair cells in the inner ear responsible for hearing. The reason isn’t exactly clear, but researchers suspect hearing loss might have resulted from damage caused by the tumor itself.
These results illustrate the importance of early intervention. Hearing loss often goes undetected for some time, increasing the likelihood that the child will experience a loss of skills crucial to mastering reading. Focusing on improving neurocognitive and language-based skills such as processing speed and phonemics can improve a child’s long-term reading skills. Hearing aids or cochlear implants might be a helpful supplement for young cancer survivors, though further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these devices.
If you have any questions about the link between tumors and hearing loss or would like to learn more about spotting the signs and symptoms of hearing loss, contact your Louisville audiologist.