War on Hearing Loss

Enlisting Gatekeepers for the Front Lines in the War on Hearing Loss

It is estimated by the National Institutes of Health that 31 million people – nearly one in ten Americans – suffer from some form of hearing loss.  The problem is pervasive and is not limited to older Americans:

  • 3 in 10 people over age 60 have hearing loss;
  • 1 in 6 baby boomers (ages 41-59), or 14.6%, have a hearing problem;
  • 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4%, already have hearing loss

 

Despite these surprisingly large figures, only a small fraction of hearing impaired individuals have sought treatment. The consequences of overlooking hearing loss are well documented; a study conducted by the National Council on Aging showed that untreated hearing impairment can lead to depression , anxiety, social isolation, diminished health , impaired cognitive function , and can even negatively impact one’s job or school performance and earning power.

There are many reasons why individuals do not seek treatment. Sometimes people are genuinely unaware of their hearing loss. Hearing loss may escape detection if it progresses gradually, over time. Some underestimate the signs of hearing loss, determining that isn’t severe enough to warrant treatment. Some have confessed that they feel there is a stigma associated with hearing loss. People are loathe to admit weakness, or they are unwilling to admit to age-related decline. It has been well established that denial is one of the biggest factors preventing hearing-impaired individuals from pursuing diagnosis and treatment. 

Despite all of the social reasons for neglecting one’s hearing health, perhaps the most glaring and perplexing reason is that there is no institutional mechanism for testing. Why is there no routine method of hearing testing? Annual physical examinations routinely test cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and so on. Every year women over the age of 40 undergo a mammogram. Men have a prostate exam. Even those who do not wear glasses or contact lenses receive an occasional vision test, thanks to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yet, there is no such routine examination for hearing health.

In a perfect world, every person would detect his or her own hearing decline, find an audio specialist, undergo testing and be fitted for a hearing aid. But that isn’t happening. Without a ‘prod’, the hearing impaired simply are not motivated to act. Family members will sometimes provide the needed gentle push, but just as often they are reluctant to initiate what may be an uncomfortable discussion with their loved one.

This is where “Gatekeepers” come in. Gatekeepers are those individuals that come into contact with the public on an annual basis: physicians, for example.  One solution is for physicians to become the gatekeepers taking the lead in screening efforts. As the individual most responsible for protecting the overall health of patients, the general practitioner is the obvious choice. Today only 13% of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss during a physical. The only way to increase the number of physicians offering hearing testing is for the public to demand it.

In the meantime, a welcome new development has shown promise in identifying more people in need of help. Ophthalmologists have joined the effort to screen for hearing loss. This is a wonderful trend, as Ophthalmologists tend to see their patients on a regular basis, usually once per year. They are thus uniquely positioned to identify people who need assistance.

Treating vision and hearing together makes sense. In fact, dual sensory loss (hearing and vision loss combined) is rising in the senior population, so treating them together may be the most effective method yielding the greatest results. It’s a ‘win-win’ for patient and provider. The patient is finally treated for an oft-ignored condition, with a dramatic improvement in quality of life. For the Ophthalmologist, it is an opportunity dramatically improve patient care and to treat the entire individual.

By lorraine | Posted in News | Comments (0)


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