Hearing loss, a silent epidemic: get your hearing tested

Posted on February 27, 2018

More than 3 million South Africans suffer from permanent disabling hearing loss, while about 6 million have some degree of hearing loss and might not know it, according to Prof De Wet Swanepoel, professor of Audiology at the University of Pretoria and President of the International Society of Audiology.

“This is 10% of the population and if undetected, it could affect people’s quality of life, well-being and contributes to the already high unemployment rate,” he explained.

He said hearing loss affects one in seven people globally and this will increase with an ageing world population. Called a silent epidemic, if left untreated, hearing loss could affect children in terms of speech, language, cognition and socio-emotional well-being. In adults it could result in increased depression, cognitive decline, withdrawal from social interactions and a three-fold increased risk of dementia, according to Prof Swanepoel. Adults also try to hide their hearing loss from society, as this is stigmatised as a disability.

However, Africa has a young population and could buck the growing hearing loss trend, if its population has access to easy, free testing for hearing loss, which could result in interventions such as hearing aids.

In line with 3 March being World Hearing Day, Prof Swanepoel is appealing to every South African to take a free hearing test. He is a founder of the HearX group, a social enterprise that offers affordable access to hearing care, using digital solutions that anyone, anywhere can use.

Two years ago his team developed a world-first smartphone App, hearZA, which allows people to test their hearing within three minutes, and if hearing loss is detected, the App recommends the nearest audiologist. “The digits-in-noise test, which is self-administered, is quick and provides a valuable indication of real-life hearing ability – understanding speech-in-noise. The App’s accuracy to identify hearing loss exceeds 90% and generates a personal profile allowing users to track their hearing ability over time,” he explained.

To date, through the use of the App, more than 10 000 South Africans have been identified with hearing loss and close to 2000 have been referred to their nearest audiologist.

He stressed that technology has made hearing devices more affordable, accessible and discreet. However, having a hearing aid fitted entails a patient receiving counselling in order for the brain to re-adjust to sound. “With technological developments, hearing aids are extremely powerful. They can amplify speech and reduce noise in the background.”

Prof Swanepoel explained that public health services can provide hearing aids at a minimum cost, but there is a waiting list.

He said that if people know they have hearing problems and they address it early on, they can continue to be socially integrated, employed and enjoy a good quality of life. “If elderly people have hearing problems that are undetected, they could also face a higher risk of falls because hearing and balance is the same organ.”

Symptoms of hearing problems among children include late talking, not following instructions, turning up the sound on the radio and tv, and struggling to follow conversation in noisy settings like classrooms. “If a parent is concerned about their child’s performance at school, I would recommend a hearing test as the first step. The earlier hearing loss is detected, the better the outcomes are for the child,” said Prof Swanepoel.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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