Now is the time to seriously consider a national adult screening programme for hearing

For many years now, calls for a national screening programme for adult hearing has always been debunked.

Why? Historically, the biggest finger has always been pointed at the perceived lack of evidence on the benefits of hearing aids. 

However, while research has consistently proven their benefit, including a full Cochrane review to prove their benefit, let’s take hearing aids completely out of the equation and focus on the bigger picture here. 

Statistics show that people enduring hearing loss take, on average, 10 years to address the issue. In the meantime, natural degradation continues to set in and leads to wider issues that severely impact an individual’s quality of life, both physically and mentally, as well as those around them.

It is no wonder that the World Health Organization (WHO) is now calling on the Member States to make hearing health care a public health priority after publishing its World Report on hearing care on 3 March 2021 – which is coincidently World Hearing Day.

As part of it, the report acknowledges that ‘the number of people living with unaddressed hearing loss and ear diseases is unacceptable’.

With that in mind, there has been no greater time than now to finally establish a national screening programme for adults in order to get a developing global crisis under control, promote the benefits of early intervention, and help the industry combat the stigma that surrounds the topic of hearing loss.

Here are just three reasons why it is now essential for a national adult screening programme for hearing to be implemented.

Putting up with even the early signs of hearing loss can cause significant issues

Typically, most people will just cope with hearing loss. 

It deteriorates very slowly, so people just manage it over time. It starts by asking someone to repeat themselves, or by turning the television up a little louder than you normally would. But at some point, it gets to a stage where someone is beginning to avoid situations they would normally be in, like going out and socialising. 

Over a period of time, there is a realisation and a point where there needs to be an intervention and that’s usually when the people around someone with hearing loss begin to notice. 

This is where there needs to be a shift in attitudes. 

There’s now a need for people to establish a benchmark of their hearing, and as soon as a decline is noticed, conversations can be started early in order to intervene with that. 

Mental and sensory health is just as important as our physical health and, as an example, if you do start to lose some of your high-frequency hearing – a natural way someone’s hearing might deteriorate – and you start to mishear certain words, that’s something you can cope with. 

However, on the flip side, you’re using other cognitive senses to try and identify what that word is. Over time, that can cause fatigue, neural changes, and cognitive decline. 

Research has shown that by intervening early that can be delayed. Most importantly, you retain your confidence in communicating, you maintain your mental health wellbeing and social engagements – rather than finding yourself in a situation where you are trying to decipher something someone has said, or not being part of something because you can’t hear properly what’s going on. 

That makes a significant amount of difference to an individual’s life. 

Early intervention is our greatest ally in the fight against hearing loss

While WHO is now actively shouting about this, the concerns around delaying a regular hearing screening programme has been an issue for some time. 

Back in 2019 – again on World Hearing Day – it was announced that a Lancet report would be commissioned to identify ways to reduce the global burden of hearing loss. To no surprise, this also highlighted the importance of early intervention.

There are other multiple longitudinal studies out there that can show the benefits of that intervention and highlight just how important it is. 

That is starting to change. We’ve had a lot of focus on the physical health agenda and there has since been a swing. The mental health agenda has been really prevalent in recent years and the sensory health agenda really needs to keep pace with that. 

Effectively, hearing loss links into mental health and should be part of that wider discussion – to a point where physical, mental, and sensory come together to make a rounded wellbeing picture.

Investing in a regular screening programme will help us detect other health issues

Far from just being a service to gauge an individual’s hearing capabilities, it’s well documented that a hearing test can be the first step in identifying other potential underlying health issues.

The link between a hearing test and detecting tinnitus is the obvious link, but there are others. 

Through testing hearing and taking a case history, other comorbidities may also be indicated such as vestibular disorders, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and sight issues. We can also explore correlations with hearing loss, dementia and cognitive decline.

The risk of falling is increased when someone has a hearing loss, links with osteoporosis are documented and still being researched. Within the Republic of Ireland, we are starting a pilot where we not only measure hearing and take a case history but also measure static and dynamic postural control to understand a person’s risk of falling. 

Working alongside physiotherapy specialists interventions can be made to strengthen control, this is a great example of sensory and physical health coming together to improve a person’s overall wellbeing.

Final thoughts

With each passing year, more and more voices are beginning to join the vacuum of calls to take hearing care far more seriously and this report from WHO feels like a big moment for our industry. 

A new national adult screening programme would be a significant move in our ongoing battle to break down the stigma behind hearing care and establish it as a service to maintaining a high-quality life through early intervention.

As an industry, we’re continuing to shouter louder and louder and we’re going to continue to until we’re heard.

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