FEB 17, 2018 8:22 AM PST

Why is hearing loss common for infants after heart surgery?

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

A first-of-its-kind study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) focused on hearing loss and its connection to neurodevelopment in children who survived heart surgery as infants. For a long time, medical professionals put all their time and energy in to helping infants survive surgery. Now that survival rates have increased, they can focus on long-term health outcomes.

The new prospective observational study from CHOP assessed 348 preschoolers (age four) who survived cardiac surgery as infants. This type of surgery is necessary for babies born with congenital heart defects. Researchers conducted a “comprehensive neurodevelopmental evaluation” and found that the rate of hearing loss in young children who survived heart surgery as infants was 20 times higher than in the general population.

Just over twenty percent of the preschoolers in the study had hearing loss, which was also linked to lower scores on tests of language skills, cognition (IQ), executive function, and attention. Associated with hearing loss were risk factors like gestational age younger than 37 weeks, a confirmed genetic anomaly, and longer time spent in the hospital after the heart surgery.

What’s the connection between infant heart surgery and hearing loss later in childhood? Scientists still can’t say for sure. Possible answers are high-frequency noises in intensive care units and exposure to medications with side effects that damage hearing. However, more studies need to be done to learn more about these potential connections.

Based on what they do know, though, researchers advise that babies who undergo heart surgery should have their hearing evaluated between ages two and three years old. Identifying any hearing loss as early as possible maximizes a child’s likelihood of obtaining the right medical intervention, which could reduce the risk of further hearing loss and other neurodevelopmental complications.

“Ideally, all newborns should be screened for hearing loss by one month of age, with diagnosis by three months, and intervention services begun by age six months,” said co-author Carol Knightly, AuD, CCC-A.

Every year in the United States, 40,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects. Thanks to modern medicine, many of them will receive surgeries that successfully treat their specific problem. Experts estimate that more than 1.3 million Americans are currently living with a congenital heart defect.

The present study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Sources: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, American Heart Association

About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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