World Hearing Day took place earlier this month as part of the annual efforts of the World Health Organisation to raise awareness on preventing deafness and hearing loss and promote ear and hearing care globally.
Each year a theme is selected and promoted through partners in government and society in countries around the world. This year, that theme is Ear and Hearing Care for all.
Ear and hearing problems are among the most common problems encountered in the community. Furthermore, more than 60 per cent of ear and hearing problems can be identified and addressed at the primary level of care if staff are appropriately trained.
This year’s World Hearing Day efforts are twofold; firstly, encouraging people to be more aware of potential ear or hearing problems and seek help and secondly to ensure that appropriate diagnosis and treatment is readily available within primary care, wherever in the world you are.
This means Governments should be ensuring appropriate training is given to health workers and physicians so that these frontline staff can diagnose and treat common concerns.
WHO resources for this year’s World Hearing Day tackle issues such as when to suspect hearing loss in adults or children, tips for ear health, hearing and language milestones in children, ‘safe listening’ and tips for hearing aid users.
The World Health Organisation recognises that if ear and hearing care could be more readily available globally, the challenges of a life involving hearing loss could be avoided.
A person is said to have hearing loss when they cannot hear as well as someone with normal hearing, i.e. with a hearing threshold of 20 dB or higher. Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, severe or profound and can affect one or both ears. When unaddressed, hearing loss impacts many aspects of life:
Communication and speech
Unaddressed hearing loss affects the way people connect and communicate; This can have a profound effect on language development in children and can also hamper communication among adults. Once this communication is hampered, the ability to connect with others becomes limited which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Language deprivation can lead to delayed cognitive development in children which could be avoided if suitable intervention was received at an early age. In older adults, unaddressed hearing loss is associated with greater mental and physical declines and with higher rates of age-related dementia than for those using hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Education and employment
In some developing countries, children who experience hearing loss and deafness often receive no schooling. Adults with hearing loss also have a far higher unemployment rate due to their impairment. Among those with hearing loss who are employed, many of these individuals will be in lower grades of employment, earning far lower wages, or have to retire earlier than their hearing peers.
Social and emotional
Although hearing loss contributes to feelings of social isolation and loneliness at all ages, these feelings are even more acute in seniors. An impaired ability to comprehend auditory information and maintain conversations can lead to avoidance of potential embarrassment or frustration. This lack of social engagement and the associated loneliness particularly in older people, may further contribute to cognitive decline and depression.
Along with the distress experienced by individuals with hearing loss and the financial costs faced by affected families, the World Health Organisation estimates that unaddressed hearing loss results in an annual global cost of $980 billion. This includes costs for the health sector, costs of educational support and costs resulting from the loss of productivity.
Hearing loss is often very treatable, but many people avoid getting help due to a lack of awareness as well as concerns about the social stigma and expense. According to the National Institute on Deafness, roughly 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. Globally it is expected that by 2050, there could be over 700 million people with disabling hearing loss.
What can be done about hearing loss?
Hearing loss that is noise induced is irreversible. However, this type of hearing loss can be largely prevented through safe listening practices. The volume of sounds, the duration of listening and frequency of exposure to loud noise all have an impact on our hearing. The higher the sound level and the longer the duration, the greater the risk of hearing loss. This is why it is so important for those who experience loud noise through their work or leisure activities to take appropriate hearing safety precautions and wear ear defenders or ear plugs.