NIHR | Manchester Biomedical Research Centre

The future of audiology – ‘pardon?!’

This year as we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Deaf Education and Audiology at The University of Manchester we’re bringing you a series of thought provoking blogs by our Manchester BRC Hearing Health researchers.

In his blog Christopher Armitage, Professor of Health Psychology and Manchester BRC Optimising Outcomes Programme Lead, discusses hearing loss and its image problem.

Why don’t people care more about their hearing?

Like many people interested in health issues, my attention is frequently drawn to the eye-catching causes of death and disability, like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Tackling these conditions is obviously important in terms of maintaining the public’s health.

But, spare a thought for hearing loss. It receives much less attention although it affects more people and is more disabling than almost any other disease. The World Health Organization* estimates that by 2050 over 900 million people will have hearing loss.

Chris Armitage

Understanding peoples’ beliefs about hearing loss

At Manchester BRC we’re conducting several research studies that are looking at people’s beliefs about hearing loss. We’re keen to understand how we can help people overcome negative reactions to hearing loss that prevent them from seeking help. We also want to learn how we can help people to look after their hearing health better. We’re analysing data from the existing research literature and interviews with key informants. We’re also conducting large-scale surveys of the general public and field experiments to understand and change the key drivers of people’s behaviour.

I went to my first loud concert with a school friend on 4th November 1987 at St. George’s Hall in Bradford and I’ve been a regular concert-goer ever since. I can vividly remember speaking too loudly to people for what felt like days after. I can’t quite remember when I first considered the potential impact on my current and future hearing but nowadays I am struck by how few people in the audiences (other than me, my eldest son and, of course, the musicians) wear hearing protection. I was at a music festival recently (July 2019) and parents were buying ear defenders for their children but, didn’t wear hearing protection themselves. Even the person selling the ear defenders wasn’t wearing any hearing protection. I know that people are motivated to look after their hearing and that they feel capable of protecting it, so I need to find out “what else?” What else can we do in terms of helping people with their hearing health?

Challenging behaviour

Changing the behaviour of all people who have a stake in improving hearing health (including politicians, who are people too!) is a grand challenge that I am excited about taking on.

Behavioural scientists have made great strides in understanding how best to help people change their behaviour: Very few people now refuse to wear seat-belts or continue to smoke indoors. However, we are still some distance away from understanding how to help people to avoid hearing loss and to encourage them to seek help when they need it. What we learn in the field of audiology will help us to understand other important social behaviours in which we are struggling to effect change.

We have discovered that approximately 40% of people in the UK with probable hearing loss do not perceive hearing difficulties and so don’t seek benefit from hearing aids. One reason we have identified for this mismatch between people’s actual hearing loss and their perceived hearing loss is that people feel threatened by the thought of hearing loss and hearing aids. There are all sorts of ways in which people get around dealing with their hearing loss that don’t involve audiologists, some of which contribute to the severe negative impacts of hearing loss (for example avoiding social situations where there may be background noise).

Our research shows that we can help people overcome their fears and gain all the benefits of hearing aids. The next steps are to see if we can deliver the promising findings of our research to improve people’s hearing health on a public health level.

We aim ultimately to ensure that audiology is treated with the same urgency as other health issues, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

In the future I would like to see hearing health become something that is as common a consideration as people wearing seat-belts and avoiding smoking inside public buildings. In other words, I hope people in the future will immediately equate hearing health with the other routine ways in which we try to look after ourselves.

Chris Armitage

*World Health Organization

Manchester BRC Hearing Health will be hosting a showcase in Manchester in October to share the work of the Hearing Health theme.