NEWS

WHO: 1 in 4 People Will Have Hearing Problems by 2050

doctor checking hearing

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Key Takeaways

  • A WHO report says that nearly 2.5 billion people will have hearing loss by 2050.
  • At least 700 million of those will need ear and hearing care.
  • You can lower your risk of hearing loss by monitoring noise levels on a daily basis.

Nearly 2.5 billion people in the world—one in four people—will have some level of hearing loss by 2050, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO). They estimate at least 700 million of those people will need access to ear and hearing care or other rehabilitation services.

This warning comes from the first-ever World Report on Hearing. The report breaks down some of the biggest challenges facing hearing care today. Among other factors, the WHO says that lack of accurate information and stigmatizing attitudes toward ear diseases and hearing loss typically prevent people from getting care for these conditions.

The WHO also says healthcare providers don’t necessarily have the knowledge about preventing hearing loss and identifying hearing issues and ear diseases early on. Ear and hearing care also isn’t integrated into national health systems in many countries and access to care isn’t well documented.

Access to care is especially problematic in low-income countries, the report says, noting that about 78% of these countries have less than one ear, nose, and throat specialist per million population, 93% have less than one audiologist per million, only 13% have one or more speech therapist per million, and 50% have one or more teacher for the deaf per million.

What This Means For You

While the WHO statistic is shocking, the good news is that in many cases hearing loss is preventable. Be mindful of the level of noise that surrounds you on a regular basis and talk to your doctor if you've noticed changes in your hearing. They could be reversible, especially if caught early.

Causes of Hearing Loss

In children, one of the main causes of hearing loss is ear infections, the WHO says. In adults, there is a laundry list. These are some of the most common reasons, according to the National Institute on Aging, include:

  • Loud noise. Noise from everyday encounters like lawnmowers or loud music can damage the inner ear, leading to hearing loss.
  • Earwax or fluid buildup. This can block sounds that are carried from the eardrum to the inner ear.
  • A punctured eardrum. This can happen by infection, pressure, or putting objects in your ear.
  • Underlying health conditions. Diabetes and high blood pressure can lead to hearing loss.
  • Certain medications. Some medications are considered “ototoxic,” meaning they can damage the inner ear. These include drugs to treat serious infections, some antibiotics, and medications for cancer and heart disease.
  • Heredity. Your genes can raise your risk of hearing issues.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss

While the WHO statistic is shocking, “equally striking is that 60% of these cases are preventable,” Felipe Santos, MD, interim chief of otology and neurotology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, tells Verywell. “This is a call to action.”

Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, tells Verywell that the statistics are “quite shocking,” adding that they’re also “surprising and not surprising” at the same time. “Younger and younger people are being exposed to loud noises,” he says. “That is one of the main sources of hearing loss.”

Experts say there are a few things that can be done to reverse the trend, starting with children. “We must improve access to vaccinations for common childhood illnesses that lead to hearing loss,” Santos says. Nearly 60% of hearing loss in children can be prevented through vaccination for rubella and meningitis, improved maternal and neonatal care, and screening for, and early management of, otitis media—inflammatory diseases of the middle ear—the WHO says.

Globally integrating ear health and hearing loss screens into primary care and setting regulatory standards to prevent noise-related hearing loss can also help, Santos says.

Mehdizadeh recommends being mindful of the volume of noises you listen to. “Your headphones should be at less than 75% of the volume,” he says. “When you start getting higher than that, you start to get at levels where you can incur hearing loss.” Unsure if you're listening at the right volume? He recommends paying attention to your comfort level. “If you’re at an appropriate level, it shouldn’t be causing discomfort,” he says. 

If you do develop hearing changes, Santos recommends seeing your doctor or a hearing specialist sooner rather than later. “The ear is a fragile organ,” he says. “Many causes of hearing loss can be treated if managed in a timely fashion.” However, he adds a caveat: If you suddenly have a loss or change in your hearing, get help right away. “A sudden loss of hearing is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention,” he says.

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2 Sources
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  1. World Health Organization. World report on hearing. Published March 3, 2021.

  2. National Institute on Aging. Hearing loss: a common problem for older adults. Updated November 20, 2018.