Manchester scientists studying hearing and sight loss are the first to use key health data from UK Biobank, a research project of global importance based in the city.
At the same time, UK Biobank has embarked on phase two of the project - inviting 20,000 participants from the Manchester area back for a second assessment.
Dr Piers Dawes and Professor Kevin Munro, from the School of Psychological Sciences at The University of Manchester, will examine data from half a million UK Biobank participants, including 120,000 volunteers who joined the project from the north-west.
The work will provide unique insight into the prevalence of hearing and vision problems. The team will examine the risk factors for hearing disability, including noise exposure, cardiovascular disease, diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol intake, medications and brain function. They will also examine how hearing loss, visual impairment and dual sensory impairment affect quality of life.
Hearing loss is a common problem. There are around 10 million people with hearing loss in the UK and, with an ageing society, this is forecast to increase to 14.5 million by 2031. Around 25% of participants who joined UK Biobank reported difficulties with hearing, which can have a profound impact on emotional, social and physical well-being. Despite this, hearing loss receives relatively little research attention (in 2010, £1.34 research money spent per person affected, compared to £14.31 for vision and £49.71 for cardiovascular research). Loss of vision affects 2 million people in the UK, 80,000 of working age.
Dr Dawes said: "Almost everyone will experience hearing loss as they grow older; it is a big problem and will get worse. UK Biobank offers a fantastic opportunity to explore the causes of hearing loss. Our first analyses of UK Biobank data are concerned with quantifying hearing problems along with environmental risk and protective factors.
"We hope that this research will lay the foundation for future work exploring interactions between genetics and environmental risk factors for hearing loss.
"With a wide range of data included and the very large sample size, the UK Biobank provides a unique resource for doing this important research. Our ultimate aim is to identify ways of preventing hearing loss and improving quality of life for older adults."
The Manchester team is collaborating with other leading scientists in the UK and US: Professors David Moore and Heather Fortnum at the Institute of Hearing Research, Nottingham; Professor Adrian Davis, Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, London; Professor Mark Lutman, University of Southampton Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, and Dr Karen Cruickshanks, University of Wisconsin and Professor Larry Humes, Indiana University, in the US.
UK Biobank, an exciting health resource, is hosted by The University of Manchester and based in Cheadle, Cheshire. It is designed as a long-term project that will run for many years. UK Biobank has recruited more than 120,000 volunteers from the north-west of England over the past six years, to create a resource of 500,000 people nationally that scientists from around the world can study to help improve the health of future generations.
When they joined, participants provided lots of information about their health and lifestyle, and UK Biobank is devising ways to collect yet more. Recently, and with participants' permission, it has begun to follow health through medical records.
It is also inviting some participants back for a second visit - to see how their circumstances and health have changed since they first joined the project, some more than six years ago. Participants attend an assessment at the UK Biobank co-ordinating centre in Cheadle, where their blood, urine and saliva samples are stored at sub-zero temperatures.
Paul Downey, UK Biobank Director of Operations, said: "We have had an excellent response from people wishing to come back for a repeat assessment, so many thanks to them.
"We are delighted people are taking the time to come along. There is a real interest in science, and a desire to be a part of this unique project."
UK Biobank is a long-term project funded primarily by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and the Department of Health. Information provided to researchers does not identify participants. As the resource matures over many years it should help provide key insights into the causes, prevention and better treatment of a wide range of common and life-threatening diseases.
Almost 400 researchers have so far lined up to take advantage of the detailed health and lifestyle information, including those investigating stroke, chronic pain, heart and lung diseases, mental and dental health. The majority are from the UK, but around 15% are researchers from overseas.