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Changing Demographics: Impact of an Aging Population on Hearing Loss Research

Barbara E. Weinstein

DOI: 10.1044/cred-ote-bts-004

I think the changing demographics is going to change all landscapes. There are going to be so many people who are living longer, and living with all these different chronic conditions. It’s going to be much more expensive to be able to support the older people as they live longer.

From the hearing perspective, in my view, since people are going to be living longer, since people are working longer and delaying retirement, and people are going to have more leisure time — hearing becomes that much more important.

What are the most critical research gaps in geriatric hearing loss?

For example, in the area of geriatrics, audiologists focus on, issues like: hearing aids are improving speech in noise, hearing aids are improving frequency resolution. That’s all important. But we have to take it to the next step to show how what we do is impacting the lives of individuals. Take screening, for example. The US Preventive Services Task Force came out with guidelines for screening for the elderly for hearing and screening for cognition.

What they concluded is, there’s not enough evidence to say that screening for hearing problems, screening for cognitive problems, is making a difference. The cost of screening and the effectiveness is not demonstrated. It takes a lot to show the government the importance of making a policy statement. And the PhD research needs to be as relevant as possible to influence policy.

What’s coming next?

I think we have to figure out how to get more people to take advantage of the hearing technologies that we have available. Hearing aid penetration has not gone up in over 50 years. Digital hearing aids are so sophisticated now. The technology is very sophisticated, but it’s not impacting sales. It’s not impacting penetration. So, in my view, what’s going to impact penetration is if we can show — and there’s some evidence now — that there’s a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.

If I knew that a hearing aid was going to forestall the onset of cognitive loss — cognitive loss meaning executive function, changing in working memory, not only the ultimate of senile dementia — I think that more people would use hearing aids.

So, what we think now is that social isolation contributes to cognitive decline. If we can show that hearing interventions reduce social isolation, and then reduce cognitive decline, that would be huge. There’s not many treatments for cognitive decline. And, there’s an increase in the number of people who are experiencing this, and as people live longer, it’s going to be more of a problem. If we can make that connection, I personally think it will be huge.

Barbara E. Weinstein
Graduate Center, City University of New York

The content of this page is based on selected clips from a video interview conducted at the ASHA Convention.
Copyright © 2015 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association