Once considered an inconvenience of getting older, age-related hearing loss has emerged as a critical public health issue.
By Brennen Jensen
When Frank Lin, MD, PhD ’08, looks up from his desk, his eyes often fall upon President Donald Trump’s jagged signature. And that always makes him smile.
That signature is on a framed copy of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act that hangs on Lin’s office wall. An associate professor in Epidemiology and Mental Health at the Bloomberg School and of Otolaryngology and Medicine at the School of Medicine, Lin helped create the legislation, which the president signed into law last year. Lin’s copy also bears handwritten notes of appreciation to him from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Grassley, two of the five cosponsors of the bipartisan act, which designates a new category of hearing aids. Consumers with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss will be able to acquire these OTC hearing aids without seeing an audiologist, just as a self-diagnosed farsighted person can purchase a pair of reading glasses at a drugstore. The law gives the FDA three years to develop technical specifications to ensure the effectiveness and safety of the devices and to develop appropriate labeling to inform and protect consumers.
For Lin, the framed law serves as a tangible sign of success in his eight-year-and-counting effort to change how the field of public health addresses age-related hearing loss, which affects some 26 million Americans over age 50 and two-thirds of people over age 70. Untreated hearing loss is thought to contribute to dementia and cognitive decline, among other health problems, and can lead to social isolation and depression.
Lin is well-positioned to tackle the issue. As an otolaryngologist, he observed the negative impact hearing loss had on his patients’ daily functioning, and he began to wonder if he could address the problem on a grander scale. He interrupted his surgical residency to pursue a public health PhD in clinical investigation.
“If you step back and view the issue from a public health perspective, you realize no one has asked the most basic questions about the concept of hearing loss in older adults—how you address it, evidence for treatment, things like that,” Lin says. “So I brought a public health background to thinking about a clinical problem I saw all the time, as well as to complaints that no progress has been made—the rates of hearing aid use are no different today than they were 50 years ago, and hearing aids are so expensive.”
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