Snapshot: hearing impairment in Australia

Do you know anybody with a hearing impairment? Chances are you do, even if you’re not aware of it.

Although hearing loss isn’t always visible, the statistics show it’s the second most common health condition experienced by Australians. Heart disease, cancer and diabetes attract more media attention, but hearing loss is actually more prevalent, affecting millions of Aussies every day.

For most of us though, the risks to our own hearing, and the preventative measures we can take to protect it, remain quite literally unheard of.

So, what exactly is hearing loss?

Let’s start with some definitions. ‘Hearing loss’ can refer to a few different aspects of how we hear: decreased audibility (loss of ability to hear some sounds at all), decreased dynamic range (less ability to hear a range of soft to loud sounds), decreased frequency resolution (less ability to separate speech from background noise), and decreased temporal resolution (less ability to differentiate intense from weaker sounds.)

A person with hearing loss will often experience a combination of these factors, with a fairly straightforward result: they struggle to hear and understand speech. Whether categorised as mild, moderate, severe or profound, hearing loss can impact everything from work, to general health, to personal relationships.

So it’s worth taking a close look at the stats in Australia and the world, and what they indicate about the future of our ears, and our lives.

Who suffers from hearing loss?

Five per cent of the world’s population live with impaired hearing. That’s 466 million people worldwide – a staggering number with major implications for their quality of life.

Closer to home, one in six Australians (or over 3 million) have some degree of hearing impairment. But researchers expect that by 2050, that stat will be closer to one in four, due to our aging population and the increased exposure to excessive noise in workplaces, through live music and even just slightly too-loud headphones.

A small portion of hearing-impaired Australians suffered hearing loss during childhood. At present, around 39 children in every 10,000 live with a degree of hearing loss – usually related to congenital conditions, trauma during birth, childhood diseases or chronic ear infections. Around 50% of these incidents are preventable in Australia, versus up to 75% worldwide according to the World Health Organisation. High-quality healthcare and screenings mean Australia’s rates of childhood hearing loss are lower than much of the world.

Far more common, however, is adult hearing loss. Of the 3.55 million cases of hearing loss in Australia, 1.3 million could have been prevented – and these numbers are expected to double by 2060. These sufferers are more likely to be men, more likely to live outside major cities, and are overwhelmingly more likely to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, with rates of up to 10 times higher than the rest of the Australian population.

Do we need to worry? 

So as a nation, should we be worried about hearing loss? After all, compared with more acute illnesses like cancer and heart disease, having some trouble with hearing seems a fairly benign health challenge.

But the impacts of hearing loss are bigger than you’d think. To start with the economics, a person with untreated hearing loss will earn an average of $10,000 less than a person without it, and are 25% less likely to earn a high income. They are significantly more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or retire early. In total, hearing loss costs Australia $11.75 billion annually in lost productivity, or 1.4% of the nation’s GDP.

Equally problematic, if not more so, are the social impacts of hearing loss. With a profound impact on an individual’s ability to communicate, hearing impairment limits social engagement, raises risks of depression and anxiety, and threatens the support networks that are required for healthy aging.

Some researchers also suggest that untreated hearing loss can lead to poor health generally. Rates of falls and hospitalisations are higher in elderly individuals who are hearing impaired, and social isolation can create a cascade of issues that increase the chance of major illness.

That’s pretty scary, for a condition that so rarely hits the headlines.

So how can we reduce our risk?

The good news is, while the impacts of hearing loss can be profound, it’s not hard to identify our own personal risk factors.

While genetics, as always, plays a role, more than a third of hearing loss is preventable – also known as ‘noise-induced hearing loss’.

Technically, while excessive noise is regulated in workplaces by various Work Safe bodies, between 28 and 32 per cent of the Australian workforce are exposed during the course of their job – especially in the manufacturing, construction and agricultural sectors.

It’s also well-known that portable music devices are risk factor for hearing loss. Researchers note that Australians are acquiring hearing impairments at much younger ages compared with previous generations, and link this to recreational use of headphones and ear buds. Regular exposure to loud live music doesn’t help, either, especially when average noise levels at concerts and clubs exceeds 100dB (that’s high enough to damage your hearing after as just 15 minutes’ exposure).

The good news is, no matter how overwhelming the statistics, a little awareness goes a long way. Taking control of your own risk factors, when you can, means preserving your hearing for as long as possible. And that sounds good, however you hear it.

For more information on hearing health, contact your local clinic.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.