Hearing loss cost still background noise

12/04/2017 - 13:08


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The Ear Science Institute of Australia is proffering several initiatives to tackle a condition that costs Australia billions.

Peter Friedland says delaying treatment for hearing loss can have an impact on cognitive ability. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The Ear Science Institute of Australia is proffering several initiatives to tackle a condition that costs Australia billions.

The prevalence of untreated or undiagnosed hearing loss has reached epidemic proportions, according to a Perth-based ear, nose and throat surgeon, although the paucity of recent research could mask the current economic cost of the problem.

A decade-old study by Access Economics found that hearing loss was widespread, with one in four Australians likely to be affected by 2050.

Almost half of those reported to suffer from some level of impairment are of working age, costing the economy more than $6 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the 2006 report.

The World Health Organisation estimates the cost of hearing loss due to unemployment and premature retirement across the globe at $US105 billion per year.

Hearing specialist and ENT surgeon Peter Friedland, who is based at the Ear Science Institute Australia in Subiaco, is calling on more people to take action and have their hearing checked regularly.

“People are living much longer, working much longer and retiring later,” Professor Friedland told Business News.

“Most people over the age of 50 will have hearing loss mainly related to age, these are the senior people in industry and in corporate boardrooms.”

Professor Friedland said those affected by age-related hearing loss maintained low-frequency hearing but would suffer high-frequency loss.

“We use high frequency to discriminate speech, so what people miss out on is the understanding of speech, especially when there’s background noise,” he said.

“You put a business executive in a workplace environment, with computers, printers, people talking; they can miss out on a lot of really important conversations.

“People can become less engaged – they are too scared to say ‘please repeat that’.

“They just nod their heads and agree, and I think that is an undetected problem, probably pervasive worldwide.”

Although advancements in hearing aid technology over the past decade have created smaller and less noticeable devices, with many using Bluetooth and wireless functions to transport sound directly into a person’s ear, only one in five Australians who could benefit from having a hearing aid actually use one, according to the Hearing Care Industry Association.

Professor Friedland said hearing aids were often considered a ‘grudge purchase’.

“People are reluctant to have their ears tested; it’s a vanity and self-consciousness issue,” he said.

“There are a lot more people with hearing loss that are unrecognised and untreated than we are aware of.

“It’s an silent epidemic. It’s not something that is as obvious as other disabilities and it can be hidden if people don’t want to bring it to the fore.”

A 2008 survey conducted by statutory authority Australian Hearing revealed that the words ‘old’ and ‘ugly’ were used in association with hearing loss and hearing aids.

“When you put on a pair of glasses you can get a fashionable frame, when you wear a hearing aid it’s not accepted in society to the same degree,” Professor Friedland said.

“Often when people do have their ears checked it’s because they’ve been forced to and want reassurance that their hearing’s not that bad. The problem is there’s always a long gap between people having their hearing checked and doing something about it, delaying treatment can have a significant effect on a person’s cognitive ability.”


Professor Friedland said the institute had embarked on one of the first studies to examine the impact of hearing aids and cochlear implants on cognitive loss, memory function, and on depression and anxiety.

“Age-related hearing loss is very much associated with cognitive decline; we know that there is a link between losing your hearing, sense of sight and smell and the development of dementia,” he said.

“If you give a patient a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, what happens to them down the track? We know their hearing is going to improve, that’s the intervention we’ve planned for.

“Now what we’re measuring is cognitive outcomes, depression and anxiety scores, and we’ve seen some promising improvements in that.”

Another area of research was to explore genetic syndromes and whether stem cell therapy could be applied to genetic hearing loss.

Professor Friedland said the team would also begin an off-label clinical human trial for tinnitus (ringing in the ears) this year.

Most importantly, he said, the institute was trying to create more awareness by encouraging families, friends and business associates to have a conversation about hearing.

“I see the impact of hearing loss on a daily basis and it’s not only the individual who is impacted,” Professor Friedland said. “It affects a person’s professional, family and social life as they lose the ability to enjoy the world around them and communicate with confidence.”


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