Listen with care: The burden of hearing loss

Hearing loss is an invisible disability experienced by over 1.5 billion people globally that has major implications on the social, health and economic consequences of individuals and society. At least 430 million people have a need for care. An estimated 80% of this global burden falls within low and middle income countries. In 2019, the global economic cost of unaddressed hearing loss was conservatively estimated to be US$981 billion, mainly attributable to effects on quality of life and loss of productivity.

One of the most significant preventable cause of hearing loss is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Prolonged or regular exposure to harmful levels of noise within workplaces, or from recreational activities can lead to irreversible damage to our sensitive hearing organ, the cochlear. This damage could lead to tinnitus, sleep disturbance and reduced productivity due to fatigue, anxiety and depression. WHO launched the World Report on Hearing in 2021 highlighting the importance of noise control measures to reduce the prevalence of NIHL. The report recommends prioritising hearing conservation programs in occupational settings, safe listening practices in recreational settings, and employing noise control in entertainment venues.

Portrait of boy listening music with headphones at desk in classroomIn 2015, the WHO indicated 1.1 billion young people worldwide could be participating in unsafe listening practices and at risk of developing permanent hearing loss. Recreational noise exposure, such as listening to excessively loud music through earphones or at live music events, firearms use or even at the local gym class, are common forms of noise that cause acoustic trauma. Reports from France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic showed a reduction in occupational NIHL due to improved implementation of conservation programs1, with current evidence suggesting recreational noise may be an even greater problem than occupational NIHL within high income regions. For low- and middle-income countries, due to a lack of noise reduction programmes and legislation to protect workers, occupational NIHL levels remain high.

The global need for prioritisation of hearing care is slowly gaining attention with efforts from organisations such as WHO and the World Hearing Forum promoting the cause. Access to quality, timely and affordable hearing care services are vital to improving the function, activity, participation, and quality of life of affected people. A reduction in the prevalence and impact of hearing loss is the pathway to reducing the global burden of hearing loss.

As we mark World Hearing Day on 3 March and acknowledge the improvements being made to address the global burden of hearing loss, we recognise there is still much work to do in creating equity. The Nossal Institute ensures disability perspectives are considered in research, policy and practice, in order to deliver practical solutions with real world impact. We are working with our partners including ReLAB-HS to better understand the multi-faceted challenges that individuals with disabilities such as hearing loss face as they seek access to health care.

Chris Waterworth is a Lecturer in Hearing Devices and Rehabilitation and Global Audiology, University of Melbourne and member of the Nossal Institute's ReLAB project team.

1Stocks SJ, McNamee R, van der Molen HF, Paris C, Urban P, Campo G, et al. Trends in incidence of occupational asthma, contact dermatitis, noise-induced hearing loss, carpal tunnel syndrome and upper limb musculoskeletal disorders in European countries from 2000 to 2012. Occup Environ Med. 2015;72(4):294–303.

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Chris Waterworth