Treating Hearing Loss Globally

Earlier this month, marking World Hearing Day, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet announced the formation of a commission to study the impact of hearing loss across the globe.  Worldwide, more than 1.3 billion people have hearing loss and more than half a billion have disabling hearing loss. We usually think of hearing loss in terms of our own country, where the numbers are large – around 50 million – but minuscule in proportion to the staggering global numbers.

What does “disabling” mean when you’re talking about hearing loss? What is the impact of disabling loss on half a billion people?

For children, a disabling loss affects their ability to learn to speak, resulting in lower literacy and lower quality of life. For adults, a disabling loss can lead to profound isolation, withdrawal from community and family, an increased risk of psychological illness, and of cognitive decline, including dementia.

The new commission will include experts in otology, audiology, neuroscience, engineering, public health and public policy. Half the commissioners will be from low-income and middle-income countries. More than 80 percent of those with hearing loss are from these countries. The report is expected to be released on World Hearing Day in 2021.

In a Lancet article last July, (see my post The Toll of Hearing Loss is Global), several of those forming this commission described the need for a two-fold approach: Prevention and Treatment.

Prevention of childhood hearing loss would most benefit poorer countries, in a profound way: The authors suggested that prevention could reduce prevalence by 50 percent or more. Among the many possible solutions for prevention are vaccinations against rubella, measles and mumps, education about and treatment of other conditions, better maternal health care and universal screening of newborns.

Among the possible solutions for treatment are some that are already familiar to Americans with hearing loss: the use of non-FDA-approved hearing devices (less expensive than FDA approved hearing aids), better accessibility to hearing health care, the use of smartphone apps, telemedicine, solar powered batteries, and much else.

Although the incidence of hearing loss in the United States is lower it still is much higher than it should be, given our national wealth and resources. Our issue is not so much prevention as the lack of adequate and affordable treatment. In addition, in the U.S. hearing loss can sometimes seem like an invisible condition – and accommodations are often hard to find.

The commission’s attention to the worldwide toll of hearing loss should serve as a reminder that hearing loss is also a debilitating problem for many people here at home. Older Americans and the poor are disproportionately affected. We owe the same attention to treating hearing loss in the U.S., especially among the poor and elderly, that the Lancet Commission will be paying to the issue worldwide.