Have You Been Screened For Hearing Loss?

By Shari Eberts

Once we hit a certain age, our primary care physicians recommend a series of medical procedures to generate a baseline health profile and to screen for various diseases. But despite the prevalence of hearing loss in older age groups, a hearing test is usually not on the list. According to the National Institute for Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 8.5% of adults aged 55 to 64 and nearly 25% and 50% of adults aged 65 to 74 and 75 and older respectively have disabling hearing loss.

Why don’t doctors regularly screen their patients for this common condition?

Perhaps in part, because it is not recommended. In March 2021 the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued a statement that for asymptomatic adults 50 years and older, “The current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for hearing loss in older adults.”

Umm, the harms? What could those be? The benefits seem clear: a better handle on hearing health and its implications for increased independence and quality of life.

Why Screening for Hearing Loss Is Important

While sometimes dismissed as a regular part of aging, hearing loss can have significant implications for a person’s general health. Not only is hearing loss associated with a higher incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but it is one of the largest modifiable risk factors for dementia. Hearing loss also usually comes with greater social isolation, a higher incidence of falls and higher hospital re-admission rates. It is not something to be overlooked.

Yet many physicians ignore it.

My doctors have never asked me about my hearing, even after I began wearing hearing aids! According to a June 2020 National Poll on Healthy Aging, this is the norm. In the poll, only 20% of adults 50-80 reported that their primary care physician asked them about their hearing in the past two years. For older adults who rated their hearing as fair or poor, the statistic ticked up to 26%. Men were more likely to have been asked about their hearing than women (24% vs 17%), as were those 65-80 years of age versus those aged 50-64 (25% vs 16%).

One Question Is All it Takes

This is a disappointing showing, especially since a preliminary hearing screening is fast and easy to do. According to the researchers at University of Michigan who oversaw the poll, “One efficient way to increase hearing evaluations among older adults in primary care is to use a single-question screener. The response to the question “Do you think you have hearing loss?” has been shown to be highly predictive of true hearing loss.”

Patients that answer “Yes,” to the screening question could be referred to an audiologist or other hearing healthcare provider for additional testing. The screening would also provide an opportunity to educate patients about the importance of their hearing health in the context of their overall health—something many people don’t understand.

More Attention to Hearing Loss is Needed

At a recent dinner with a friend (who is also a doctor), I asked him why hearing loss screenings are often overlooked by primary care physicians. Despite having two parents and a handful of friends experiencing hearing loss, he, like most doctors, does not include hearing screenings as part of his appointment protocol. He explained that most medical school programs provide only limited information about hearing loss unless you decide to specialize in a related field, making hearing loss an unfamiliar topic for many.

But he had another explanation for the dearth of screenings—they are not always reimbursed by public and private insurance programs, making them a lower priority service for many practices. This needs to change. Increased screenings would not only benefit older adults and their families, but they could also help minimize future costs from associated ailments.

The first step is for everyone—doctors and the general public alike—to start taking hearing loss more seriously.

Take matters into your own hands

If you, or a loved one, have any concerns about hearing, there are a number of ways to quickly check your hearing without visiting your primary care doctor.

  • Visit a hearing care professional - Free hearing screenings are offered at many hearing clinics throughout the country. Visit HearingTracker’s clinic map and select Testing and Diagnostics -> Free Hearing Screenings to find nearby clinics offering free hearing screenings.
  • Test your hearing online - Check your hearing using HearingTracker’s free online hearing check. Alternatively, download the Mimi or SonicCloud apps to test your hearing through your smartphone.
  • National Hearing Test - To test your hearing through your phone, without installing any apps, check out the NIH-funded National Hearing Test.