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Jean Kienapple Memorial Prize Submission

by Jean Kienapple award winner Shally Yuan

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Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting seniors. In Canada, 47% of people over age 60 have at least a mild hearing loss in one ear (Statistics Canada, 2015). Regrettably, hearing loss is often undertreated. The average time people wait to seek help for hearing loss is about seven years (Beck & Alcock, 2014). Current market research estimates that only 30% of people who require hearing aids are actually wearing them (Abrams & Kihm, 2015). Often, seniors cite the cost of hearing aids as a major barrier towards a trial with amplification. A pair of hearing aids can cost between $2000 to $7000, depending on the technology level of the hearing aids. For many seniors on a fixed income, this can be a prohibitive cost.

In Canada, government funding for hearing aids is insufficient. Limited funding is available through organizations for special populations such as Veterans Affairs, First Nations, or Worker’s Compensation Boards. But for most seniors who do not fall into any of those categories, the funding is almost nonexistent. In Ontario, the government will subsidize just $500 per ear towards hearing aids (Government of Ontario, 2016). Most other provinces do not have any form of hearing aid funding for seniors. As a result, there are many seniors who require hearing aids but cannot afford it.

In the light of the various consequences of untreated hearing loss, the government needs to increase funding for hearing aids to promote healthy aging. Untreated hearing loss of any magnitude can have dramatic social implications. People with hearing loss report having to frequently ask for repetition during conversations, leading to frustration and mental exhaustion (Gates & Rees, 2003). Many people experience social and emotional isolation from missing out on conversations and events. Family members can enter into a vicious cycle where they minimize interaction with the person with hearing loss because of the difficulties that arise during communication. As a result, this causes the person with hearing loss to withdraw from activities they used to enjoy. At parties and family gatherings, the person with hearing loss may sit quietly in the corner as they struggle keep up with the conversations around them. Overall, hearing loss generally causes a decrease in the quality of life for seniors during a time when they are supposed to be enjoying life the most.

Aside from the social consequences, recent research has also shown a correlation between hearing loss and other health conditions. Even a mild hearing loss can triple the risk of falls among seniors (Viljanen et al, 2009). Furthermore, seniors who have untreated hearing loss are more likely to experience depression and have higher rates of dementia (Lin et al., 2011; Mener et al., 2013). The exact mechanism is not clear yet, but researchers suspect that hearing loss can lead to social isolation, which is a risk factor for dementia (Lin et al., 2013). Social isolation is also a risk factor for depression in seniors because of the activity restrictions it puts on their lives. For example, going to the movies or a restaurant induces anxiety rather than joy as they worry about how they will hear in those environments. More research is required to determine the exact relationship between hearing loss and other health conditions, but hearing aids may be a logical starting point towards healthier seniors.

"Hearing aids can help seniors to communicate with their loved ones again and remain socially active in their community."

If the government increased the funding for hearing aids, they would make it more accessible for seniors who may not otherwise be able to afford to treat their hearing loss. Hearing aids can help restore quality of life by helping seniors to communicate with their loved ones again and remain socially active in their community. Research shows that seniors who maintain quality social relationships are healthier and live longer (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).

By providing funding, the government can also ensure that seniors do not wait too long to try amplification. Long periods of sound deprivation to the brain will make it more difficult for a person to adapt to amplification. When people wait until their hearing loss is very severe to try hearing aids, their brain may find the amplified signal too distorted and not useful. If cost was eliminated as a barrier to entry, more seniors could try amplification earlier and increase the likelihood of them receiving benefit from the amplified sound.

In addition, government funding can increase general awareness of hearing loss. 77% of adults with hearing loss have never had a hearing evaluation (Statistics Canada, 2016). Age-related hearing loss usually occurs so gradually that many seniors are unaware that they have hearing loss. The few that suspect it may not even bother with seeking a hearing assessment because hearing aids are not in their budget. If the government provided hearing aid funding, it would encourage more seniors to monitor their hearing health because they will have the comfort of knowing that they can afford a solution for their hearing loss. Furthermore, if more seniors were able to access hearing aids, the stigma of wearing hearing aids would likely decrease as they would become more ubiquitous in society.

Government funding for hearing aids for seniors is essentially an investment in the public healthcare system because it promotes healthier seniors. It can encourage earlier trials of hearing aids to provide the best outcomes and decrease the stigma of hearing aids. It may reduce the risk of other health conditions such as depression and dementia. Most importantly, increased access to hearing aids for seniors promotes healthy aging by maintaining or restoring quality of life. As Helen Keller once said, “Blindness separates people from things, but deafness separates people from people.” It is essential for the government to start providing more funding for hearing aids to allow our seniors to keep hearing the beautiful world around them and encourage healthy aging.

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