The hearing loss problem started escalating with the invention of factories at the start of the industrial revolution. Nothing much has changed since ear trumpets were introduced in 1800, an innovation that captured more wanted sound while filtering out background noise. Digital hearing aids and noise-cancelling earbuds are based on the same principle.
Hearing loss fits the definition of a pandemic – a vast, out-of-control global health problem getting worse. The problem is strongly correlated with the invention of factories burning fossil fuels in the late 19th century. Workers went deaf from the noise, urban life got louder, and the conventional wisdom that hearing loss is virtually inevitable took hold.
The need for solutions is unquestionably urgent. The World Health Organization reports that hearing loss is now the world’s second most common health disability and the Lancet Commission reports that hearing loss in midlife is the single biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease – nine times riskier than obesity and over five times riskier than hypertension. Below are selected statistics from their recent publications.
One and half billion people are hearing impaired, and about a third of them are profoundly hearing disabled, meaning they’ve become functionally deaf. The World Health Organization (W..H.O.) reports that the rate of hearing impairment has increased twenty-five percent in the last four years alone.
Hearing loss is unequally distributed around the world because of racial, social and economic disparities. Over 80% of those who suffer are in low and middle income countries. Less than 20% are in high income countries. Digital sound processing technologies add risk.
The rate of hearing loss in children and young adults is climbing faster than ever. Another 1.1 billion people aged 12 to 35 are at risk much earlier in life than their parents, mainly from loud music; and because kids use earbuds too.
The W.H.O. estimates the annual global cost of hearing loss at about $1 trillion, and the costs are climbing quickly – nearly 30% in the last four years. The costs include health care, education, lost productivity, social isolation and stigma, and affecting children and adults of all ages. If things continue at this rate, 25% of the estimated world population of 10 billion – that’s two and half billion people – will be hearing impaired by 2050. And 10% – that’s 1 billion people – will be deaf. That’s faster than a 30-year doubling rate.
Globally, 360 million people (about 5% of the world’s population) live with disabling hearing loss, of whom 32 million are children. The prevalence of hearing loss increases from 1.7% among children to 7% in adults (including 183 million males and 145 million females). Nearly 180 million people aged 65 years or older (that is, more than 30% of the population in this age group) have hearing loss that interferes with understanding normal conversational speech. High-quality, national and local epidemiological data on hearing loss, however, are generally lacking and this scarcity contributes to low awareness of the problem.
– 2017 World Health Agency Resolution on Hearing Loss
Hearing loss, something that used to be considered a problem for older people, now impacts all ages – 1.1 billion young people, ages 12 to 35, are already at risk for hearing loss early in life from loud music from digital music players and in bars, clubs, concerts and festivals.
– Word Health Organization, 2015
50% of hearing loss could be prevented with low-cost interventions.
– World Health Organization Report, Global costs of unaddressed hearing loss and cost-effectiveness of interventions, 2017
Today, hearing loss affects the quality of life and livelihood of more than a billion people globally. Acquired hearing loss is the second most common health impairment in the world.
– The Lancet, October 2016
Hearing loss is often compounded by the incurable neurological disorder tinnitus, and is the largest single risk factor for dementia and its most significant potentially modifiable risk factor.
– The Lancet Commission on Dementia, 2017
Hearing loss is now the fourth leading cause of years lived with disability, up from the 11th leading cause in 2010 and ahead of headline-grabbing conditions like diabetes and dementia. The 32 million children affected experience delays and usually limits in their communication, literacy, and educational attainments. While 80% of the burden of disabling hearing loss is in low-income and middle-income countries, these problems cannot be ignored by high-income countries, where those experiencing hearing loss are twice as likely to be unemployed and earn half the median income.
– Blake S. Wilson, The Lancet, December 2017