By Ann Constantino,
Approximately 15% of Americans over the age of 18 experience some degree of hearing loss during their lifetime. According to a 2020 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, looking at data from over 25,000 participants, hearing loss was associated with increased odds of psychological distress, and increased utilization of mental health services, while corrected hearing loss was associated with a reversal of those trends. Hearing loss has also been shown to lead to depression, falls, and even dementia. It comes as no surprise that restored hearing improves quality of life and boosts brain function.
Medicare is great as long as you don’t care about seeing, chewing, or hearing. Advocates of the expansion of Medicare coverage often point out these shortcomings of the program. A minority of Medicare recipients may find some relief if they can afford vision or dental insurance, but for those with disabling hearing loss, the prohibitive cost of the complex devices known as hearing aids can mean life with diminished sound, sharply reducing the quality of life for many seniors and others who have suffered hearing loss.
432 million people worldwide have treatable hearing loss.
Some insurers other than Medicare provide some support for hearing services, so if you’re experiencing hearing loss and you are under 65, find out what might be available to you through your health insurance. Veterans are eligible for a wide range of low-cost or free hearing services.
The World Health Organization estimates that 432 million people worldwide have treatable hearing loss. 25% of people between 65 and 74 and 50% of people over 75 have what is considered a disability from diminished hearing. Yet most people typically delay doing anything about it for ten years, largely due to the high cost of prescription hearing aids.
Starting in October of 2022, some relief from the prohibitive cost of prescription devices has arrived in the form of Federal Drug Administration-regulated over-the-counter hearing aids, available for a fraction of the price of prescription models. The average price of OTC hearing aids is about $1600, while prescription devices are often four times as costly or more. For some, that price tag is still too high, but a quick Google search of “financial assistance for hearing aids” will bring up a long list of foundations and programs that might be able to offer assistance to income-qualifying patients with a hearing deficit.
The OTC options are suitable for those 18 and older with mild to moderate hearing loss, and the FDA points out that those who suffer from more extreme deficits will still require the more sophisticated devices. These are available by prescription only, after a thorough exam by an audiologist which includes the prescription and individualized fitting of your device.
For those looking into the OTC options, there are a few things to consider.
Cost can be anywhere from $99 per pair to $3,000, the high end not very far from the average $4600 sticker price of the prescription models. If the pair that has the best features for you is still a little out of reach, there may be financing or discounts available from the company itself or from other programs.
Some companies provide free, online support services, others use apps to make adjustments.
If you buy over the counter, you may need to be a little more proactive about obtaining the services you need which would ordinarily be provided by your audiology office in the case of prescription hearing aids. Some companies provide free, online support services, others use apps to make adjustments. Your particular relationship with technology may determine what device will be easiest for you to use. Be sure to research thoroughly before buying so you don’t end up frustrated by difficult-to-access services. Some brands offer a subscription service for easy access to support for a price. Some offer online hearing tests that will help you decide on the features you need. Warranty can vary from one year to several.
Some models offer Bluetooth so you can connect to your phone or other listening devices automatically. Another thing to investigate is the number of hearing settings available on the devices you are researching. Settings can be adjusted depending on the environment you are in, whether a library or a construction site.
Battery Life can range from 16 hours to 30 hours or more. Some come with rechargeable batteries, others come with disposable batteries.
Fit is a highly individual personal choice. Some models sit entirely inside the ear canal, making them almost invisible, while others clip onto the back of the outer ear with a much smaller piece connected by a wire being the only part that sits internally. Many companies offer free samples you can try on and wear for a few days while you figure out what is going to be comfortable for you.
Brick-and-mortar stores that offer OTC hearing aids are still few and far between with the relatively recent launch of the devices. Locally, limited models are available at the Eureka Walgreens. They can also be ordered through Costco.com and then serviced at any Costco store.
The National Council on Aging recently published a detailed comparison of OTC hearing aids and named the following brands as the best for various applications: Jabra (best for seniors), Eargo (invisible fit), Lexie (self-fitting), Audicus (best financing plans), and Audien Hearing (affordability).
With OTC hearing aid options being relatively new, the prices are expected to go down as more and more manufacturers enter the competitive fray, so if you have time to wait that development out, it may save you a few bucks. However, if you are aware that impaired hearing is changing your life, you now have options that will enable you to preserve this important factor of your overall health. Birdsong, the babble of a grandchild, and good conversation in a crowded café need not be things of your auditory past.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.