The Rising Tide of Hearing Loss

Our noisy society needs a much more prevention-oriented approach.

ADD it up. Add your total noise exposure for a 24-hour period, that is, if you want to know how much damage is being done to your hearing. Because all of the good done by industry to reduce hazardous noise levels is being undone by cumulative damage and by non-work factors, argues Dr. Paul A. Brown, chairman and founder of HearUSA Inc. The West Palm Beach, Fla., public company operates hearing care centers in 11 states and the province of Ontario, Canada.

"Noise injury takes place over 24 hours," Brown said during a recent interview. "If you're at work and exposed to a damaging noise, and then go home and mow your lawn, that noise is added to the noise from work. And if you then go out to a club, that noise is added. It takes 24 hours for the hearing system to recover."

"We're going to have a severely hearing-impaired society in the next decade," said Brown. I found his prediction hard to dispute. Today, 9 percent of Americans who wear hearing aids are age 90 to 100. But 14 percent of all hearing aid wearers are younger than 60. Both percentages have doubled in just five years, Brown said. What the latter figure tells us is that hearing aids are rapidly entering the workplace.

Brown said he started the company in 1986 to shift hearing protection into health care: He wanted his customers to be insurance companies, not hearing loss patients. Using a large network of audiologists, the company conducts hearing tests, sells hearing aids, and provides family counseling and lifetime care. (HearUSA's strategy relies on increasing public awareness of the impact of hearing loss and the medical necessity of treatment, according to the company's 2003 annual report. For information, call 800-323-3277, ext. 123, or visit www.hearusa.com.)

When he set up the company, insurers thought hearing aids were strictly retirees' products and would not pay for them. "Now that we're getting into the workforce, the insurance company has no way to say that," and the picture is changing, he said. Now, insurance covers 20 percent of all hearing aids sold in the United States.

Our society's noisy habits will fuel growth in this business for years to come. Can we do anything to stop it? Brown isn't optimistic, and he should know. My hope is that insurance coverage of the damage inevitably leads to much, much more emphasis on prevention.

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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