Among the elderly, hearing loss is a major problem, yet most do little about it. In the United Kingdom, 26% of the elderly would benefit from wearing hearing aids. But just half of these have been fitted with one, according to a recent comprehensive study. Of those who have been fitted with hearing aids, only 60% actually use them on a regular basis, and half of them have been fitted with equipment providing insufficient hearing ability. The results of the study were reported in the April, 2002, issue of The Lancet medical journal.
The study included Britons aged 75 and older, across the United Kingdom. In all, 32.656 were questioned about their hearing, and 14.887 were given a so-called "whispered voice test". They were asked to repeat words and numbers being whispered by health workers from a distance of 15 centimetres (app. 9 inches) from the ears of the individuals being tested. This kind of testing is simple and easy to use and, according to the researchers, similar to a "pure tone test" detecting hearing loss at sound levels of 30-40 dB. In other words, mild hearing loss does not show up in this level of testing.
Among the elderly, 8% readily recognized their hearing loss as a major problem. Another 34% considered their hearing loss a minor problem. The older the respondents, the greater the perceived problem.
In the physical testing, 26% failed. Of those, more than half did not have hearing aids. In addition, 46% of those fitted with hearing aids were still unable to hear well enough to pass the test, indicating that elderly people often receive inadequate or obsolete hearing aids. In the U.K. the National Health Service, NHS, often dispense analogue hearing aids. Digital models were introduced only recently.
Among those fitted with hearing aids, just 60% said that they use them regularly. Often, the low usage was due to the elderly finding their hearing aids ineffective.
Hearing impairment among the elderly population is of great importance. It is a severe handicap, yet it may often be treated effectively with modern, individually fitted hearing aids. The researchers behind the study identified three major challenges facing the hearing health authorities: Increasing the number of hearing aid users, improvement of the hearing aids, and increasing their usage.
Earlier studies indicate that one in ten in the general population would benefit from using hearing aids but that only one in five has one. The need for hearing aids is highest among the elderly, but according to the study data, respondents in younger age groups seem to be more likely to ignore the problem.
The individual elderly person may have difficulty recognizing their need for a hearing aid in spite of the many social consequences of untreated hearing loss.
Source: The Lancet, 2002, 359: 1466-1470.
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