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Chris Rehn

Why we should all care about unaddressed hearing loss

There’s a common reaction from the hundreds of adults who come through our cochlear implant program each year: “I wish I’d done this sooner”.

Australians have a high level of resignation around their hearing. Many see it as a natural part of ageing. And this reluctance is seen right around the world. International evidence shows that people live with hearing loss for an average of nine years before they address it.

We also know that although 90% of children who could benefit from a cochlear implant go on to access one, only 10% of adults do – even though they are by far the largest group affected by hearing loss.

This avoidance and delay isn’t just an inconvenience – it has a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Hearing loss can lead to social isolation, mental health problems, falls, hospitalisation and cognitive decline. The evidence continues to mount around the link between hearing loss and dementia, with studies nominating hearing loss as the number one modifiable risk factor for developing the disease.

Far-reaching impact

This is an issue for all of us. As our population ages, the impact of hearing loss will increase – with the number of people affected expected to double to 7.8 million over the next 30 years. The burden on our health and social systems will be huge, not to mention the cost of lost productivity. Hearing loss already has a hefty price tag. It’s estimated to cost Australia about $40billion a year in financial costs and lost wellbeing. The story is similar across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 80% of ear and hearing care needs remain unmet, and unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of nearly US$1 trillion. 

As we observe World Hearing Day on Sunday the WHO wants us to work together as a global community to change mindsets around ear and hearing care, so we can increase the chances people will get the support they need and mitigate the cost of unaddressed hearing loss.

How might we get there? There is considerable excitement and expectation around the power of technology to help change outcomes. Hearing devices are becoming more and more wearable, and people without hearing loss are increasing their expectations around how devices deliver better sound solutions and connectivity. This will see visible distinctions between those who can and can’t hear, diminish over time.

Exciting developments

There are also exciting developments in the field of AI. For example, a collaboration through Google’s Digital Futures Initiative between leading hearing health organisations including NextSense, will explore new ways to design and improve machine learning models that deliver precision healthcare tailored to people’s individual needs. There are many other big brains looking at opportunities in this field.

Then there’s the promise of technologies that can proactively manage our hearing health – before problems start. Decibel limiting is already here on our smart phones and other devices, and there will be more to come.

But technology is just one part of the puzzle. We still need to put considerably more energy into shifting attitudes – to help people care about their hearing, protect it, and understand the precious resource that it is. To help adults see that when it comes to losing their hearing, they don’t have to accept ‘that’s just the way things are’. That good outcomes are possible with the right support. And that it’s never too late to make a difference.

A case in point: there are some very lively clients in our program aged 90 and above who have considerably increased their quality of life by regaining their access to sound. There are also 50 and 60-year-olds who have taken the plunge and acted early so that they could continue to participate in the workforce. There are endless stories of success to share – but we have to share them more loudly and more broadly.

Family influence is powerful

Families can make a critical difference here. Helping more relatives understand that the best thing they can do for the person in their life struggling with hearing loss is to support and encourage them to address it – and give them the tools to do so – will help us create the step change needed for a shift in our collective mindset.

Then, there’s the wider team around each person that is instrumental in helping them navigate their options: the GPs (and the relationships they have with professionals like audiologists), the peer supports from others going through the same thing, the wraparound care you get from a good cochlear implant program, where surgeons work hand in hand with speech pathologists, audiologists, and psychologists.

There’s a role for others too: research, industry, service providers, health systems, education. And of course, government, which has critical policy contributions to make. In working with Aboriginal communities to reduce the incidence of Indigenous ear disease and hearing loss. And in looking at meaningful strategies to better identify and target adult hearing loss. The closer to hearing loss we act, the better the outcomes will be – for all of us. We need to focus on helping people realise what’s possible – before they’ve reached a point where they are used to their hearing loss and accept it as inevitable.

It will take a village

Each sector holds a different part of the solution. Which is why we all need to be at the table to drive change. It is truly going to take a village if we want to see real progress.

Given how difficult we know it is for many people to move from inaction to action, we need to be more collectively proactive about addressing the barriers that are stopping people moving forward. We must increase the amount and sources of information and encouragement, look at building stronger partnerships between allied health providers and primary care, increase the undergraduate training available to audiologists on cochlear implantation, build and foster hearing environments that prevent the damage from environmental hearing loss before it even starts. And much, much more.

Australia is a world leader in hearing health research and technology. If any country has everything at its fingertips to tackle this issue, it’s us. If we prioritise this, pull together – and listen to each other – we’ll achieve it.

This article was originally featured by Third Sector. Read it on their site here.

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