By Erica Mather 11/08/2015

It has been well established that New Zealand’s population is aging. Studies have been conducted to assess the impact of the increasing incidence of chronic illnesses on healthcare services, but the burden of hearing loss has been overlooked.

A greater proportion of the New Zealand’s population is living longer, meaning that centrally-funded health and social resources are being put under increasing pressure. In 1951, the median age was 29; in 2011-12 it was 37 and it is predicted to increase to 44 years by 2061.

The impact of an aging society on hearing healthcare has not yet been addressed.  According to recent research by Daniel Exeter and colleagues, the number of New Zealanders with some degree of hearing impairment is expected to increase significantly in the next 50 years.  The study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, approximated the burden of hearing loss in New Zealand as the population structure changes between 2011 and 2061.

Population data from Statistics New Zealand was utilised to estimate the distribution of the population between 2011 and 2061 by age and sex. The potential impact of an aging population on the prevalence of hearing loss was determined by applying hearing loss estimates, stratified by age, to the population projection.

“While the prevalence of hearing loss among those aged 14–49 years is expected to decrease, the prevalence among the population aged ≥70 years is expected to double between 2011 and 2061,” the authors write.

The changing demography of New Zealand has implications for the provision of hearing health services over the next 50 years. In 2011, adults aged 65 or more made up 13% of the population. This is expected to almost double over the next 50 years with this age group accounting for 25% of the population.

The authors also provide data that suggests an increasing proportion of the older population (≥65 years) will choose to settle in rural, coastal areas such as Northland, Tasman and the West Coast, rather than the bigger cities.

The geographical distribution of the population aged ≥65 years.
The geographical distribution of the population aged ≥65 years.

With the prevalence of hearing loss among older people estimated to significantly increase, the demand for hearing healthcare is high – particularly in regions with the greatest elderly population growth. In 10 of the 16 regions across New Zealand, those aged ≥65 years will make up 25% of their population by 2031.

Daniel Exeter and colleagues emphasise that the current level of hearing healthcare would be the absolute minimum to be maintained into the future, regardless of the advancing technologies and medical treatments for hearing loss that will no doubt be implemented in the years to come.

Individuals with hearing loss are managed traditionally by both Audiologists who fit hearing aids, and medically by otolaryngologists. In order to estimate the future hearing health workforce needed to accommodate the projected surge in the population with hearing loss, the authors applied recent membership numbers of audiologists and otolaryngologists to the expected future population.

“In order to remain at the 2011 population to clinician levels, the hearing health workforce will need a further 89 audiologists and 32 more otolaryngologists by 2061 … Recent increases in numbers of audiologists graduating from New Zealand universities would appear to meet this predicted demand for future hearing health services,” the authors conclude.

However, the authors point out that there will still be an increased burden and cost on society due to the increasing number of people requiring hearing aid subsidies.

Daniel Exeter and colleagues plan to extend this research by estimating the likely patterns of hearing loss by level of severity, as well as investigating the ethnic variations in hearing loss.

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