The Toll of Hearing Loss is Global

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.images

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.

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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. 

Hearing Loss? Don’t Neglect Your Eyes

Take care of your eyes and ears
For people with hearing loss, even a small decrease in vision can affect the ability to lip-read and understand better what they hear. — Getty Images/Hero Images

 

Those of us with more than just moderate hearing loss tend to take care of our hearing.

We make sure our hearing aids are in good working order, and any new symptoms — dizziness, ringing in the ear, a drop in hearing — result in a prompt visit to the ear doctor.

Unfortunately, the eyes, like much of the rest of the body, become more susceptible to disease and other issues as we get older. Some problems are serious and can lead to blindness, if left untreated. But for people with hearing loss, even a small decrease in vision can affect the ability to lip-read and thus understand better what they hear.

The combination of vision and hearing problems can also decrease the ability to socialize, which has been linked to a greater risk of dementia.

A 2014 study of nearly 900 European adults age 75-plus with hearing problems and more than 27,000 Europeans age 50-plus with vision problems found that people with vision or hearing problems were less socially active than those without sensory problems, and those with both vision and hearing problems were the least socially active.

  • Age-related macular degeneration, a deterioration of the portion of the retina responsible for central vision, is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. According to the American Academy of Opthalmology, the risk of getting macular degeneration jumps from about 2 percent of people in their 50s to nearly 30 percent in people over age 75.
  • Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens, can affect one or both eyes and are very common — by age 80, more than half of Americans either have it or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute.
  • Retinal problems affect people with diabetes disproportionately, but can occur in anyone and can cause blindness if not treated.
  • Glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness, can develop without symptoms, so regular eye checkups are important.
  • Dry eyes may not sound like a problem, but million of Americans suffer from this painful, irritating condition that can affect vision. Some 20 million to 30 million older Americans have a mild condition, while 9 million suffer a moderate to severe case. “In patients over 50, dry eye is the most prevalent — and under-recognized and under-treated — condition out there,” Alan Carlson, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at Duke University School of Medicine, told AARP. “Virtually everyone over 55 has some degree of dryness.” There are treatments, generally over-the-counter eye drops, but don’t ignore the problem. It can result in a deterioration of vision.

Recently I started having painful itching in my right eye and the vision in that eye was blurry. I dismissed this as allergies, but a few weeks ago I began waking up in the middle of the night with stabbing headaches. I knew I should see my ophthalmologist — especially when I realized it had been almost two years since I’d had a checkup.

I regarded these new symptoms as bizarre, but not really worrisome. But when I mentioned them to a physician, she said I should go straight to the eye doctor.

I got some eye drops and made an appointment. In the meantime, I wanted to share the lesson learned. My physician friend put the fear of blindness in me, and I’ll never be so casual about my vision again.

This post first appeared on AARP Health on 10/25/2016.
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Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.