Hearing loss affects an estimated 325 million people worldwide. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, people with untreated hearing loss are at twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as people with unimpaired hearing. Treating hearing loss can be expensive and inaccessible for many people, with hearing aids alone costing upwards of $500. Fortunately, treatment breakthroughs are on the horizon.
Botswana-based company Solar Ear has just released a low-cost hearing aid that comes with rechargeable batteries. The Solar Ear batteries cost about $1, and last between two and three years, as compared to traditional batteries, which usually have to be replaced weekly. For people in developing countries who may earn only $1 a day, the rechargeable batteries are expected to make a huge difference. The charger, hearing aid, and batteries can be sold together at a profit for approximately $100.
Solar Ear employs deaf and hearing-impaired people almost exclusively, and has decided not to patent its products. The company is also developing apps for smartphones, in an attempt to reach its goal of assisting 100 million people by 2020. The apps will allow the phone to function as a hearing aid, conduct hearing tests, and improve individuals’ hearing.
Novartis International is taking a different approach to reducing hearing loss. By introducing a virus into the ear, Novartis scientists hope to stimulate the growth of cochlear hair cells, which vibrate and send signals of sound waves to the brain. When a human’s hair cells die, they are gone forever, but in other animals like birds and fish, they regenerate. The virus introduced into the ear is harmless, but takes over certain cells to produce a protein which will change the cell into a hair cell. The treatment is currently undergoing human trials, but, as it is easily washed out of the ear, finding a permanent application may take some time.
As scientific advancements improve, treatments for hearing loss will become more effective and accessible. With time, people’s lives will be improved and hearing loss will become a thing of the past.