By 2050, estimates the World Health Organization, more than 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss—a side effect of an aging population, inner ear-damaging medications, and noise-related environmental factors. Yet a series of barriers—shame, denial, and reluctance to wear devices—prevents a majority of people who could benefit from hearing aids to seek them out.

“The way I do the math, a third of all adults have unaddressed hearing issues,” said Kevin Franck, Director of Audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “If you are a venture capitalist, you get very excited about those numbers.” But helping people who have experienced hearing loss “is not as easy as selling them an app or a pair of headphones,” Dr. Franck adds. “It’s more complicated than that.”

To be sure, the hearing aid has come a long way in the 40 years since President Ronald Reagan’s adoption of the device was seen as a political liability. And untreated hearing loss is associated with a wide range of other health problems and risks, including depression and dementia. That’s why Mass. Eye and Ear is working closely with industry to develop new treatments, such as inner ear regeneration drugs, and hearing aid innovations that will enhance their appeal to people who can benefit from them. In addition to improving function, these developments are also aimed at increasing access and lowering costs associated with treating hearing loss.

Dr. Franck believes that these innovations will be met by a new generation of aging adults more open to addressing the problem than their parents and grandparents. “They are going to demand greater performance from hearing for longer in their lives,” he says. “Some people take hearing loss as something that just happens when you get old. I think this generation might say, ‘I don’t care if I have to wear something on my ears. I’ve already been wearing stuff on my ears.’”

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