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Edwin Lutz on water

The coming tsunami of age-related hearing loss

More and more Americans are living with a quietly increasing disability, and one that can have a dangerous ripple effect into other aspects of their health, happiness and livelihood. But a transformation in treatment is on the horizon.

A "coming tsunami" was how Robert Jackler, MD, the Edward C. and Amy S. Sewall Professor in Otorhinolaryngology, described to me the number of aging adults with hearing loss that is expected to rise dramatically in the years to come. Today, fewer than 20 percent of adults diagnosed with hearing loss seek treatment, such as hearing aids. Those who do seek treatment wait, on average, eight to 10 years before doing so.

That means that a lot of Americans are living with a quietly increasing disability, and one that can have a dangerous ripple effect into other aspects of their health, happiness and livelihood.

In my story, "Hear and Now," for the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, I look at some of the numbers:

According to the National Institutes of Health, 'Approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.' A review of literature in the October 2017 JAMA Otolaryngology raised that estimate, stating that hearing impairment affects nearly two-thirds of Americans who are 70 and older. Simply put, adults older than 70 are more likely to have hearing loss than to have normal, healthy hearing.

Those numbers reflect the state of things today, but the population "bump" caused by the baby boom promises to rapidly increase the number of adults afflicted by hearing loss in the future:

The onset of hearing loss as we age may be gradual, but the accumulated effect on our population is developing into an epidemic of drastic proportions. This is especially true in the United States as the baby boom generation -- the 75 million babies born from 1946 to 1964 -- has reached or is about to reach senior citizenship. The number of individuals of all ages with mild to complete hearing loss will balloon from just under 44 million today to nearly 55 million in 2030.

Despite these dire numbers, Jackler, who is also chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, sees a transformation in treatment on the horizon. "I have a huge optimism about the future of our ability to help people with hearing loss," he told me.

Fueling his hope are advances in the technology of hearing aids, which have seen more rapid advances in the past seven years than they have in the past 70, an improvement in attitudes toward wearing hearing aids and reducing their stigma, and a concerted effort at Stanford to strive for a cure. At the same time, Jackler's colleague, Matthew Fitzgerald, PhD, chief of audiology at Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, is working to improve the way hearing is tested, to provide more accurate diagnoses.

And they aren't the only optimists. In my story you'll meet Ed Lutz, 76, father to Amy Yotopoulos, director of the Mind Division of the Stanford Center on Longevity, who struggled for years with hearing loss until his daughter encouraged him to try Bluetooth-connected hearing aids. More from the story:

Lutz has his own advice for people with hearing loss: 'Don't give up if the first pair of hearing aids doesn't feel right. Let your mind get accustomed to the new sounds.'

Lutz's experience is proof that getting the right treatment can make an enormous difference, not only in hearing the world around us, but in our ability to connect with people and enjoy life to the fullest. And, with barriers to treatment -- such as cost and access to care -- coming down, there's even greater hope that treatment, technology and education could outpace the ever-rising numbers of hearing loss in adults.

Photo of Ed Lutz courtesy of Lutz

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