We tend to think of hearing loss in personal terms. It’s about you and your health, between you and your hearing specialist. Private. And that’s true, on an individual level. But when we talk about hearing loss in a broader context, as something that affects 466 million people, it’s important that we also frame it as a public health issue.
Now, broadly speaking, that just means that we should be thinking of hearing loss as something that affects society as a whole. We need to consider how to manage it as a society.
The Cost of Hearing Loss
William has hearing loss. He just found out last week and he’s decided he doesn’t really need to fuss about with any of those hearing aids just yet (against the advice of his hearing specialist). Unfortunately, this impacts William’s job performance; it’s harder for him to keep up in meetings, it takes him longer to get his work done, and so on.
He also stops going out. It’s just too challenging to keep up with all the layers of conversation (people talk too much anyway, he thinks). So instead of going out, William self-isolates.
Over time, these choices add up for William.
- Economic cost: Ignoring his hearing loss can affect his income over time. According to the World Health Organization, hearing loss can cause a certain amount of underemployment and unemployment. Combined, this can cost the world economy something like $105 billion in lost income and revenue. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as that lost income has a ripple effect throughout economic systems.
- Social cost: William is missing his friends and families! His social isolation is costing him relationships. It’s possible his friends don’t even know about his hearing loss, so when he doesn’t hear them he seems aloof. It can come across as insensitivity or anger. This puts additional strain on their relationships.
Why It’s a “Public Health” Issue
While these costs will certainly be felt on an individual level (William may miss his friends or lament his economic situation), they also have an impact on everyone else. With less money in his pocket, William doesn’t spend as much at the local shops. With fewer friends, more of William’s caretaking will have to be performed by his family. Overall, his health can become affected and lead to increased healthcare costs. If he’s uninsured, those costs get passed on to the public. And so, in a way, William’s hearing loss affects those around him quite profoundly.
Now take William and multiply him by 466 million and you can get a sense of why public health officials look at hearing loss very seriously.
How to Treat Hearing Loss
Thankfully, there are two pretty simple ways to improve this particular public health issue: prevention and treatment. When hearing loss is treated effectively (usually via the use of hearing aids), the results can be quite dramatic:
- You’ll be able to hear better, and so you’ll have an easier time engaging in many daily social aspects of your life.
- You’ll have an easier time keeping up with the demands of your job.
- Your relationships will improve because communicating with friends and family will be easier.
- With treatment for hearing loss, you might be able to help lower your risk of several linked conditions, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, or balance issues.
Treating your hearing loss is one way to promote good health, both physically and mentally. It makes sense, then, that more and more medical professionals are prioritizing the care of your hearing.
Prevention is equally important. Public information campaigns seek to give people the information they need to avoid loud, damaging noise. But even everyday noises can lead to hearing loss, such as using headphones too loud or mowing your lawn.
There are downloadable apps that can monitor ambient decibel levels and warn you when things get too loud. Protecting the public’s hearing in a broad and effective way (often via education) is one way to have a big impact.
A Little Help Goes a Long Way
Some states in the U.S. are even changing the way that health insurance treats hearing health. That’s an approach based on strong evidence and good public health policy. When we change our thinking around hearing loss–and about preventing hearing loss–can dramatically impact public health for the good.
And that helps everyone, 466 million and beyond.