I have written here before about the urgency with which we need to start properly addressing hearing loss - be it through a national screening programme, or by campaigning for subtitled on-demand content. But today (November 4) marks the launch of Action on Hearing Loss' state-of-the-nation report, Hearing Matters, which maps out the picture of hearing loss in the UK.
Significantly, since our last report of its kind in 2011, there has been a rise in the number of people with hearing loss, from 10million to 11 million people. With an ageing population, this will increase to one in five of us by 2035. The government and other health bodies must, in light of these huge figures, tackle it as a major public health condition.
Hearing Matters highlights the scale of work and investment that needs to be done across the board to support this growing segment of the population. Quite astonishingly, less than 1% of medical research funding is spent on hearing loss - the equivalent of just £1.11 for every person affected. To put this into perspective, £11.35 was spent on sight loss for every person affected, and £19.79 into cardiovascular conditions. Whilst these conditions are well worthy of serious investment, the chronic under-funding of hearing research in light of this increasing prevalence beggars belief.
The financial case for serious investment in hearing loss and tinnitus research is incredibly robust. In 2013, the UK economy lost more than £24 billion in potential output because people with hearing loss were unable to work. And, given that the exponential increase in people with hearing loss will coincide with rises in the age of retirement, if low employment rates for people with hearing loss continue by 2031 the UK economy will lose £38billion a year. To fail to address this, particularly during such a delicate economic period, would be a failure to capitalise on a huge amount of unnecessarily wasted potential. Can the UK afford to do this?
We know that the NHS is under an increasing amount of strain - a cocktail of troubling finances and an ageing population is presenting a number of serious challenges. Where leaps and bounds have been made to tackle a number of other age-related illnesses such as dementia, hearing loss is the ugly relative - stigmatised and marginalised.
Despite hearing loss being acknowledged by the government as a major public health issue - and with its 'Action Plan on Hearing Loss' now in place - there is still an overall perception that hearing loss isn't necessarily that 'serious'. It's often viewed as an inevitable part of ageing, and its links with other serious health conditions are not as widely known as they should be.
Consider these stats - hearing loss doubles the risk of developing depression, and can lead to anxiety, crippling social isolation and other mental health conditions. People with mild hearing loss have double the chance of developing dementia, those with moderate hearing loss have three times the risk and severe hearing loss goes up to five times the risk. Whilst we don't know exactly why this is the case yet, there is an undeniable causal link.
2035 may seem unimaginably distant - but 20 years is a mere generation. By that time, a fifth of the UK's population will be living with hearing loss, a sobering thought we hope will jolt the government into action. With such a huge number of people affected, failing to invest in research, to improve access to services and employment to those affected, and to properly address and look into these health issues would be an absurd miscalculation of its importance, based on tired old assumptions and stigmas that we must combat.
This report reinforces what Action on Hearing Loss stands for - which, ultimately, is to help people with hearing loss, deafness and tinnitus to live the life they choose. We hope that this report paves the way and demonstrates the need for us all to take action and make our ambitions a reality.
To read 'Hearing Matters - why urgent action is needed on deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss across the UK', please visit www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/hearingmatters.