The World Health Organisation (WHO) has marked the International Day of Older Persons this October with a call for society to take ‘healthy ageing’ more seriously.
Their World report on ageing and health report has identified hearing loss as major barrier to older people’s care and calls for a framework for action built around the new concept of ‘functional ability’.
With advances in healthcare helping more people live longer, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050. The WHO has warned that radical societal change will be required to meet this growth, including realigning health systems to meet the needs of older people.
The report makes a strong link to age related hearing loss and sensory impairment in older people, noting that “[by] age 60, the major burdens of disability and death arise from age-related losses in hearing, seeing and moving, and non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory disorders, cancer and dementia”.
It goes on to show that as older people develop strategies to compensate for declining sensory functions they often withdraw from society, leading to social isolation and depression, and “the ways in which they perform other cognitive tasks may also be altered and may be less efficient”. Sensory impairments can also limit older people’s ability to access services, compounding mobility problems and other limitations in their capacity that modern health services often fail to address.
“Today, most people …are living longer lives,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “But this is not enough. We need to ensure these extra years are healthy, meaningful and dignified. Achieving this will not just be good for older people, it will be good for society as a whole.”
The report suggests that hearing loss can “be managed effectively” with adjustments to the way care is delivered and better access to assistive technology now that “high-quality hearing aids can … be fitted at an affordable cost”. Such changes will require a shift from systems that are designed around curing acute disease in hospitals to one that provides ongoing local care for the chronic conditions more prevalent in older age.
NCHA Chief Executive David Hewlett said: “It is a public health, NHS and economic imperative to support people in ageing well, yet many NHS commissioners in England continue to ignore advice from the WHO and policy-makers to take active ageing more seriously. Community hearing services relieve pressure on hospitals and GPs, keep older people independent in their communities and deliver the NHS’s strategic goals. It is bewildering that the NHS persists in treating hearing loss as low priority and a service that can be arbitrarily cut.”