A new study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet offers an unblinking look at the tremendous burden of hearing loss worldwide. “Global hearing health care: new findings and perspectives” was published on July 10th. The authors are Blake S. Wilson, Debara L. Tucci, Michael H. Merson and Gerard M. O’Donoghue. The first and fourth authors organized a three-day discussion at Duke University on the subject, which was followed by a massive review of the existing literature.
Half a billion people have disabling hearing loss, a number that is far higher than earlier estimates. This is not just a little trouble hearing the TV, your wife mumbles, this restaurant is too noisy hearing loss. This is disabling hearing loss.
“Disabling” means that 500 million people worldwide cannot hear well enough to learn to speak (if they are children), with resulting lower literacy and lower quality of life. If they are adults, “disabling” means they may have a sense of profound isolation, typically withdrawing from community and family, prone to psychological illness and likely to develop earlier and more severe dementia than their peers. “Association is not causation,” as the authors remind us, and in fact causation is the subject of a number of ongoing research studies into the hearing loss/dementia link. But the numbers are alarming: “Indeed, the hazard ratio for developing dementia increases two, three, and five times with mild, moderate, and severe losses in hearing, respectively.”
Eighty percent of those with disabling hearing loss live in low and middle-income countries, and their hearing loss has severe economic and personal consequences. But those in wealthy countries are not immune to these consequences. “In high-income countries… adults with disabling hearing loss have twice the prevalence of unemployment and half the median income of their normally hearing peers.”
The answer, the authors say, is twofold: prevention and treatment. Prevention and treatment of childhood hearing loss would be most effective in poorer countries. Special attention to adults would be more effective in wealthier areas.
Prevention could reduce prevalence by 50 percent or more in some regions of the world, according to the World Health Organization. These preventive efforts include vaccinations against rubella, measles and mumps; education and treatment of HIV, syphilis, hypertension and other conditions. It also includes maternal nutrition and neonatal care, attention to ototoxic drugs, and and universal hearing screening of infants. Chronic or acute otitis media should be treated promptly with antibiotics.
Treatment costs could be reduced by strategies like more competition and lower prices for hearing devices, a change in service provision – and “with disruptive and parsimonious designs” of hearing aids and cochlear implants.
These parsimonious and disruptive designs include many of the solutions now being discussed in the United States: the use of personal amplification devices (PSAP’s), smartphone apps, elimination of the need for a physician’s clearance, revision of regulatory requirements to allow “more competition and comparison shopping for hearing aids.”
Sound familiar? That’s because these are the very same recommendations made by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in June 2016, and the earlier PCAST report to the President.
The report calls for a global initiative to reduce “the currently unbridled burden of hearing loss.” It cites the interagency partnership VISION 2020, which began in 1999 with a goal of reducing avoidable vision loss by 2019. Indeed, as the study points out, disabling hearing loss is almost twice as common as disabling vision loss. In the category of mild to complete loss, hearing loss outnumbers vision loss by 46.2 v. 24.5 million in years lived with disability. Hearing loss is the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide.
The report is complex and fascinating and if you are interested in reading the full report please contact me via the comments section on this blog.
And if you suspect you have hearing loss, be grateful that you live in a country where you may be able to find treatment at a reasonable cost. Over the counter hearing aids will not become a reality for several years, but in the meantime get a hearing aid if you can afford it, try Costco or good online retailers for lower prices, get a PSAP if you can’t afford a hearing aid, try out some smart phone apps. But don’t ignore it.
For more information about living with hearing loss, read my book “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.