By Emma Wilkinson
BBC News health reporter
People suffer hearing problems for many years before they seek help
The over-55s could soon be screened for hearing problems under new proposals.
An NHS trial across Britain of 35,000 people aged 55-74 found routine hearing tests offered "substantial benefits" and were good value for money.
A national programme could be in place within five years, said government adviser Professor Adrian Davis, who led the research.
More than one in 10 people in the trial were found to have a moderate to severe hearing problem.
A simple 30-second test using a device which produced tones at different sound levels was enough to identify those who need a hearing aid, the trial carried out in England, Scotland and Wales found.
The Department of Health said it would look at the evidence.
Hearing aid services are currently struggling to cope with demand as patients switch from old analogue models to digital aids.
But Professor Davis, who is director of the Medical Research Council Hearing and Communication Group, said the goal was to hit 18-week waiting times for everyone by the end of 2008.
"Once we have the capacity, a screening programme is the next step," he said.
"For the first time we have come up with a really clear-cut picture that screening is incredibly effective and cost effective."
He said identifying people early was vital for quality of life.
"We know that on average people live for 10-15 years with hearing difficulties before they present to their doctor," he added.
Hearing problems can make it difficult to understand conversations when there is background noise, such as in shops or cafes or when watching television.
It can lead people to become depressed and withdrawn as well as have difficulties at work.
Only 3% of people in the study were found to have hearing aids but 12% of people had moderate or severe hearing loss.
The researchers estimated a screening programme, which would most likely be done in general practice, would cost £13 per person or £100 per person if the cost of treatment is taken into account.
"We were really gob smacked that a simple test was the best strategy because there's all sorts of available technology," said Professor Davis, who is also director of the NHS newborn hearing screening programme.
"It meets the criteria for a screening programme really well."
Emma Harrison, from the deaf and hard of hearing charity RNID, said the average age for a first hearing test is over 70 - but 60% of people already have a significant hearing loss by that age.
"Widespread screening could improve the quality of life for millions of people over 55 whose hearing loss might otherwise go undetected for years, as it is easier to adjust to the benefits of a digital hearing aid if you have only recently started to lose your hearing."
But she stressed the current long waiting times for hearing specialists needed to be addressed so people could benefit from hearing aids.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the National Screening Committee was responsible for looking at the evidence and advising ministers.
"The current NSC advice is that there is insufficient evidence to recommend screening for hearing impairments in adults.
"However, NSC advice is regularly reviewed in the light of new research evidence becoming available."