The number of people expected to have disabling hearing loss will nearly double to 700 million worldwide by 2050 – that's about one in 10 people. While this is partially down to an aging population, it's also due to louder environments. Exposure to high-decibel sounds such as heavy traffic, construction work and airplane engines is on the rise, but even going out to dinner can contribute to the problem. Restaurants often reach noise levels of more than 70 decibels, which can cause hearing loss over time.
It's not just your hearing that takes a hit. Exposure to noise pollution can cause physiological stress on par with that of secondhand smoking, which can lead to heart disease. Listener fatigue, which occurs due to the extra effort it takes to discern and process sound, can cause exhaustion. Despite the severity of the problem, it can be tricky to address: hearing is said to be as unique as fingerprints – two people with similar levels of hearing loss could have completely different needs.
Armed with awareness of the importance of prevention matched with technological advances, businesses are now fighting the problem by targeting personalization and hearing wellness.
Audio technology has seen a particular boom, as the use of earbuds and mobile phones have offered more opportunities to deliver personalized sound.
• Mimi is an app where you can test your hearing and create a personalized sound profile. This can be integrated with headphones – audio equipment brand Skullcandy is an early partner – and other audio devices, so you don't have to turn up the volume to hear clearer.
• Noopl is a phone accessory that works with earbuds to track where your head is turning during a conversation. It captures audio of whoever is speaking and sends a clarified version to the earbuds. It's particularly useful for hearing in crowded rooms.
• Whisper is a smart hearing aid that makes adjustments depending on the environment. The brand offers a leasing system, cutting down on the high initial medical device price, and consistently updates its software.
Growing policy awareness of the problem could open up more doors. The US Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a new category for over-the-counter hearing aids, which would allow for devices to be sold directly to users without a medical examination.
Beyond the eardrum
That said, improving in-ear devices can go only so far. There's opportunity in making better sound environments that are accessible for those with hearing loss and the audio-sensitive alike.
That's where Mumbli, a hearing wellness app officially launching this summer, is stepping in. Founded by Marion Marincat, who suddenly lost 80% of his hearing at age 26, the patent-pending smart hearing platform uses the internet of things (interconnected computing devices in everyday objects) to measure sound levels in different venues. Based on this, Mumbli provides visualized audio data for businesses, as well as certifications for venues that pass its sound sensitivity metrics. It also has an interactive map where people can see businesses that have been ‘certified for sound’. Looking ahead, the company will be integrating third-party services, such as music curation, to better enhance the ambience of spaces.
Marion says it's been a difficult journey, as hearing wellness continues to be a silent public-health problem. There's a stigma around hearing health, due to its connotations of aging; 20% of people who are issued hearing aids don't use them. But it's also about convincing people that the solutions need to be multifaceted and preventative.
‘For more than 50 years, we've talked about hearing only when it's too late,’ he says. ‘Finding a solution to bring that conversation forward is challenging.’