More than one in ten middle-aged people has difficulty following speech in noisy environments, according to an analysis of 165,000 people in the UK Biobank, a project following the health of half a million people across the country.
Our analysis of the data, which is currently under review and presented at the International Collegium in Rehabilitative Audiology conference in Denmark, also found that only 2% of adults use a hearing aid, a sharp contrast to the 11% who were found to have hearing problems.
Yet hearing loss remains a low priority when it comes to research funding and people’s perception of the problems cause by hearing loss is surprisingly low. It takes ten years, on average, for people to seek help.
More than ten million people aged over 16 who have some form of hearing loss in the UK, and at least four million people would benefit from hearing aids who don’t have them. And a growing ageing population means hearing loss is set to become a bigger public health issue and a major disease burden.
But according to Action on Hearing Loss, a leading UK charity, the amount spent on research for every person who has a hearing loss is £1.34. This is in stark contrast to vision problems at £14.
Hearing loss may not kill us but there is more to health than avoiding death.
A major cause of disability
In terms of years lived with a disability, hearing loss ranks in the top dozen alongside conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
Listening to loud music over prolonged periods of time is a known cause but we most often associate hearing loss with getting older. However, we are beginning to understand that adult hearing loss may not be an inevitable consequence of old age. A healthy and varied diet is associated with better hearing.
The effort and embarrassment of mishearing in social gatherings can lead to withdrawal and isolation and this social deprivation may contribute to cognitive decline. We have yet to establish if treating hearing loss in some people can reverse, or slow down, cognitive decline.
For most adults, the onset of hearing loss is slow, insidious and permanent.
NHS largest global buyer of hearing aids
Hearing loss is relatively inexpensive to treat, yet estimates suggest that £13 billion is lost to the UK economy every year through unemployment linked to it.
Yet the uptake of adult hearing services is both low and slow. The typical age when an adult seeks help for a hearing loss is in their early 70s and this makes adaptation to wearing a hearing aid problematic and contributes to variable outcomes in terms of benefit and use.
One big issue is the stigma associated with wearing a hearing aid. The stereotype of an old person is someone who is shuffling towards the finishing line with a walking stick and wearing a whistling hearing aid. This social stereotype may in itself contribute to hearing decline due, for example, to physiological changes associated with the stress of ageing.
In contrast to having a hearing loss, there is little stigma associated with vision loss, perhaps because eye care also involves lifestyle choices - it’s available on the high street without the need to see a GP and onward referral to an audiologist in hospital, which emphasises illness and frailty.
There is more to helping people with hearing loss than just providing a hearing aid but we should go further and remove the need to visit a GP in some instances if we are serious about removing the stigma and addressing an unmet need.