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. 

Turn Down the Noise!

A new national survey of adults shows that people in all age groups, from millennials to seniors, think that public spaces are too loud. Here’s a link to the study. And here’s a quick graphic version.

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Forty-one percent of those polled said they were concerned that exposure to loud noise may have harmed their hearing. More than 50 percent said they worry that future noise exposure could be harmful to their hearing.

The survey, which was conducted by Crux Research for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, polled 1,007 people ages 18 to 70+. The largest percentage of participants were in the 18-24 and 70+ age groups.

Crotchety seniors who object to noise volume are the stereotype, but this new study found that dissatisfaction with the noise levels was highest in 18 to 29-year-olds. More than half of that group, however, said they found noisy environments more energetic or fun. Only 26 percent of the oldest participants agreed with that assessment..

The biggest culprits in terms of noise are live concerts (33 percent said they have not gone to concerts because of the noise level or have gone but the noise bothered them), bars or clubs (35 percent), sports events in a large stadium (27 percent), restaurants (25 percent) and movie theaters (21 percent).

The good news is that respondents across the board valued their hearing. More than 80 percent of those polled said their hearing status was extremely or very important. Almost three-quarters of 18 to 29 years olds answered that their hearing was important. A majority reported taking at least one step (moving away from speakers at a concert, using earplugs) to limit their noise exposure.

The survey did not ask about hearing aid use, but other studies show that despite this apparent awareness of hearing damage people are still not wearing hearing aids.

The survey was commissioned for Better Hearing and Speech Month, which is May.

How’s Your Hearing? Maybe Not as Good as You Think.

Undetected Hearing Loss
Getty  Images/Canopy

If you think your hearing is fine, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should make you think again. One in 4 people ages 20 to 69 who reported that their hearing was good to excellent were found to have hearing damage.

This kind of “hidden hearing loss” doesn’t show up on standard hearing tests but can make it difficult to impossible to hear conversation in a noisy setting.

The CDC analyzed more than 3,500 hearing tests conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NNANES) in 2011 and 2012. It found that 20 percent of people who thought they could hear well and who said they didn’t work in a noisy environment nevertheless had hearing loss — some of them in their 20s. The type of loss they had, including a drop in the ability to hear high-pitched noise, indicated that noise damage may be to blame.

Even more surprising, more than half of the 40 million adults who have noise-related hearing damage developed it away from the workplace, from exposure to noisy rock concerts, sporting events, leaf blowers, traffic and other sources, the CDC reported.

Adding to the problem, 70 percent of people exposed to loud noise never or seldom wear hearing protection.

Although noise exposure in the workplace is well documented as a cause of hearing loss (the danger level is set at eight hours at more at 85 decibels, equivalent to the sound of heavy city traffic), the proportion of people with this kind of loss who don’t have a noisy workplace is an indication of how loud our everyday world is.

The understanding that some hearing loss is hidden and  doesn’t show up on standard hearing tests is relatively recent, the Associated Press recently reported. The loss, Harvard otolaryngology researcher M. Charles Liberman explained, may be caused by loud noise that damages the connections between hair cells in the inner ear and the nerves that carry the hearing signal to the brain.

You can test how well you understand speech in a noisy environment using a special online exercise prepared for the Associated Press in conjunction with the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami.

To take the test, click here. You will be asked to repeat a series of sentences. The exercise begins in quiet, but then slowly introduces background noise. The noise comes in six levels, faint at first but eventually louder than the words. People with hearing loss will start to have some trouble understanding the words at the second or third level, the AP reported.

What both the CDC report and the recent research into hidden hearing loss indicate is that people need to be aware of the noise they are exposing themselves to, and wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to protect their hearing. Keep the volume down, whether it’s while watching TV or listening to music or other programs through earbuds. The Hearing Loss Association of America offers more information on the CDC report, on its website. You can also go to the CDC website.

Hearing loss is no mere nuisance. As the CDC report noted, “Continual exposure to noise can cause stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems.”

Update (May 9, 2017): For more on this, read the May issue of Hearing Journal: Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: What Your Patients Don’t Know Can Hurt Them. 

 

This post first appeared on AARP Health on March 22, 2017.