By Dan Troast

After years of research, technological advances, and dedicated awareness campaigns, there’s been a notable shift in the social perception of hearing aids related to stigma. It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to wear hearing aids and seek treatment for hearing loss, allowing many of those who experience hearing loss to reclaim their quality of life while simultaneously protecting themselves against future risks. 

World Hearing Day, an annual awareness campaign created in 2007 by the World Health Organization, has spread awareness and advocacy for treatment and prevention of hearing loss for the past 17 years. This year, World Hearing Day was focused around continuing to reduce stigma and myths surrounding hearing health. The campaign emphasized that globally, more than 80% of ear and hearing care needs are unmet, causing productivity loss and social exclusion, leading to an annual societal cost of $980 billion per year. 

Innovation and Destigmatization Across 17 Years

As a practicing audiologist, I understand the difficulties of delivering quality hearing care and strive to destigmatize hearing loss and treatment among patients, physicians, the media and society in general. Since World Hearing Day began 17 years ago, the state of hearing care has advanced dramatically through consistent improvements in hearing aid technologies and increased knowledge of the progressive nature of hearing loss and its relation to both depression and cognitive impairment.

Utilizing smaller components, new battery technologies, and improved processing, many hearing aids today resemble Bluetooth earbuds in both form and function, which are now so common that they carry no stigma. Smaller devices that offer Bluetooth capabilities are already helping convince more people to treat their hearing loss earlier, delivering numerous health benefits.

The addition of new capabilities has been coupled with more advanced user controls, often accessed through mobile device apps that enable simple, fast adaptation to various sound environments. Convenience has also been upgraded with the advent of rechargeable batteries and charging cases that can provide up to a week of full-time use on a single charge. 

Awareness: The First Step to Acceptance

I used to begin discussions with patients by explaining how we can improve their daily experiences and noting that hearing issues, like vision issues, only compound over time when left untreated. Thanks to global advocacy, and perhaps even the widespread use of targeted advertising, my patients now enter my office with much greater knowledge than just a decade ago.

Many of them are aware that hearing loss has been directly linked to depression, anxiety, and mental decline, including being the top modifiable issue linked to dementia, with hearing aid use being linked to an astounding almost 50% reduction in dementia risk among patients considered high-risk based on age or other factors. This is related to reductions in conversations and interactions due to hearing loss that are necessary to maintain language and cognitive skills.

The warning signs are also becoming more widely known thanks to increased awareness campaigns from insurance companies and organizations. Traditionally, it was easy for those with early stages of hearing loss to overlook or write it off as normal until it worsened to have a more significant impact on their communications, relationships, and enjoyment of basic daily activities. Thanks to the heightened awareness and more user-friendly hearing aids, more and more people are seeking early treatment and improving their future risk profile.

Transforming Lives with Top-Tier Tech

Hearing tests and subsequent sampling of hearing aids remains the strongest method for demonstrating the power and effectiveness of modern devices. After determining the severity of an individual’s condition, we can clearly convey how daily experiences will be improved by using hearing aids, from general scenarios like taking phone calls or conversing with loved ones to specific situations like riding a bicycle or adapting to the loudness of a movie theater.

These discussions about quality of life can entice patients to test and adopt hearing aids regardless of their age, past experiences or initial reluctance. Basically, once someone is in the chair, we can more easily convince them of the benefits today than we could 20 years ago because modern devices are simply better in every way. They are less noticeable, last longer, don’t require battery changes, can adapt to solve specific hearing needs, and even provide the noise canceling features popularized by modern headphones and earbuds.

All of these factors make it easier and less intrusive to wear hearing aids on a regular basis, just like the addition of ear hooks made the use of eyeglasses explode nearly 300 years ago. The easier it is to forget that one is wearing an assistive device like a hearing aid, combined with wider applicability to daily needs, the more likely it is that the user will permanently integrate it into their routine. By enhancing comfort and increasing capabilities, the latest devices have undoubtedly helped to reduce stigma around hearing treatment, and will continue to do so as manufacturers pursue ever-more innovative designs and functions.

Hearing care today is more accessible than it’s ever been before. Campaigns like World Hearing Day and innovations by companies like HearUSA to develop and formulate better hearing solutions have led to significant advancements and better quality of life for those with hearing loss. For this to continue, the audiology industry must continue to recognize the potential dangers of hearing loss and educate those affected about the risks, while simultaneously taking strides to make hearing care more accessible to everyone. 

Dan Troast, AuD, is an audiologist at HearUSA in Winter Garden, Fla., and has served as chair of the company’s HCP Advisory Board since 2022.