The Hidden Economic Costs of Hearing Loss

By Julia Métraux

Hearing loss can affect people’s lives in many different ways, and it may be difficult for some to maintain employment and relationships with friends and family. This is both a personal issue and one that impacts the whole world. A recent study estimated that the total global economic impact of hearing loss exceeded $981 billion in 2019.

The study found that most of this burden was due to unrealized productivity and the social implications of hearing loss. Here is what you should know about this issue—specifically, the employment challenges for those with a hearing disability and how hearing aids may ease this heavy load.

Hearing Loss and the Workforce

When compared to their normal-hearing peers, those with hearing loss are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. An analysis of the 2018 American Community Survey, published by the Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute, found that fewer than 40 percent of those with hearing loss were full-time employed. The full-time employment rate is around 60% for those with normal hearing.

Even for those who do have full-time employment, a lack of hearing loss accommodations at make can make things difficult, and research suggests that this may result in lower self-esteem.

“It creates a lot of stress in the labor force because people feel like they cannot communicate openly with all their co-workers or have to overcompensate [for] their hearing ability,” said Emmanuel E. Garcia, PhD, a biostatistician at the Johns Hopkins University Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health.

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Emmanuel E. Garcia, PhD, works at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

The High Cost of Hearing Aids

One way to overcome these issues is with hearing aids. But in the United States, a professionally-programmed pair of high-quality hearing aids can easily cost thousands. And, for those without hearing aid insurance medical insurance coverage, hearing aids may simply be unaffordable. “For someone who doesn't have a job or doesn't have the health insurance that can help them with the cost, it is very expensive,” Garcia said.

For people with mild hearing loss who cannot afford hearing aids, over-the-counter hearing aids offer a glimmer of hope. The new class of hearing aids will mean easier access to affordable self-fitting hearing aids. FDA approval of OTC hearing aids, however, may not come until mid-2022. Garcia notes that the Johns Hopkins University Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health supports OTC hearing aids for some people with hearing loss. “We're trying to make sure that people with mild hearing loss have access to more affordable hearing devices that can help them perform better,” he said.

The Barrier Beyond the Cost of Hearing Aids

The price of hearing aids is not the only obstacle people face in their decision to get and use hearing aids. A 2019 study published in the Disability and Rehabilitation journal found that among working adults, “low adherence in hearing aid use is connected to fear of stigma related to hearing impairment and hearing aids.” It can be hard for some to stand out due to their hearing loss and have their devices attract attention. The researchers recommend that “in consulting patients with hearing impairment, professionals should give advice about how to deal with questions about hearing aids, hearing impairment and the fear of stigma at work.”

Garcia also notes that people who live in countries where the devices are more affordable still struggle with stigma. “In other countries like in the UK, people actually can just go to the doctor and can get a hearing device, basically for free. Yet still not every person with hearing impairment will actually get a hearing aid,” he said.

How Hearing Aids Help

While hearing devices do not dismantle the overwhelming economic burden from hearing loss, they can help. “Wearing a hearing aid has been found to be positively correlated with having lower incidences of social isolation and depression, as well as with having higher work productivity,” Garcia said.

Wearing hearing aids can also play a role in potentially lessening other health issues which hearing loss may worsen. Research suggests that unaddressed hearing loss may play a role in dementia, which itself poses a high economic burden on society due to caregiving needs.

Hopefully, with more societal attention and action, the costs – both financial and emotional – of hearing loss will be eased.