Age-related hearing loss is common – in fact, it is almost certain that anyone who lives long enough will experience it – but it is still not treated often. Less than 1 in 3 people aged 70 or over who could benefit from hearing aids have used them, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is despite growing evidence of a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, dementia and depression.
Hearing aids, the main way to treat age-related hearing loss, are expensive. On top of that, people often don’t want to wear them. But all that can change with advances in technology and without a prescription made by companies like Apple’s AAPL
and Bose soon hit and shook the market.
And the market is growing as the boomers’ hearing begins to fade. Hearing loss affects about 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those over the age of 75, according to NIH statistics.
Can boomers do for hearing aids what they did for glasses and orthopedic shoes? Progressive glasses and contact lenses have replaced bifocals and there is a wide range of comfortable shoes that do not look like they come from a medical supplies store.
The key is marketing, said Dr. Justin S. Golub, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Columbia University Medical Center.
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Most people are reluctant to admit that they have a hard time hearing, Golub told reporters at the Columbia Academy for the 2021 age boom in early May. Age-related hearing loss occurs slowly, so there is an element of denial.
The stigma of wearing hearing aids and spending – up to $ 8,000 for the best couple – is holding people back, he said.
That can change. Congress passed legislation in 2017 that allows manufacturers to sell hearing aids directly to consumers without a prescription from an audiologist, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to issue draft safety and efficacy regulations next year or so.
Companies are already launching headphones that amplify or filter sounds, and hearing aid manufacturers are refining their offerings.
More affordable options
Apple AirPods, while not listening to handsets, have a “transparency mode” that allows users to adjust the gain settings, and Apple devices have settings that allow custom audio settings. The AirPods Pro version retails for $ 250. The company will not comment on plans for future products.
Bose says its recently launched $ 849 SoundControl hearing aids are the first to be approved by the FDA for direct sale to consumers. Designed for mild to moderate hearing loss, they are programmed through an application so that users can adjust the settings. They are available in five states (Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas) and the company plans to sell them nationwide.
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The three major barriers to hearing aid acceptance are cost, complexity of access and stigma, said Brian Maguire, director of the Bose Hear category. “We really believe we can change all three over time,” he said.
The idea is to “consume” hearing aids so that people see them as brackets or glasses – two categories that have changed dramatically in the last 15 to 20 years, Maguire said.
Hearing aid manufacturers also acknowledge this. WS Audiology launches its Signia Active Pro hearing aids to “anyone who wants to look cool and wants to enjoy listening to everything that matters to them, and to be fully committed to all the people who have the most of great importance to them, “the company said in a press release.
“For the longest time, the use of hearing aids has been equated with old age,” said Brian Taylor, director of clinical content development at Signia. This is “one of the most important reasons” that people are reluctant to consider, he said.
“Signia’s new product does not look like a traditional hearing aid and somehow breaks the stigma,” Taylor said. “Every time a device looks more like a consumer audio gadget and less like a hearing aid, you’ll see a lot of people hug the device and be ready to wear it.”
The insurance may not cover hearing aids that are not sold without a prescription, but people may be able to use their health savings accounts to recoup costs.
You may still need a hearing assessment
People usually receive hearing aids for the first time around the age of 70, according to Taylor, who is also an audiologist. This is a number the industry would like to reduce, he said, as data shows that early intervention can prevent cognitive decline, social exclusion and other conditions associated with hearing loss.
Audiology teams are working with the FDA to develop recommendations for over-the-counter hearing aids. “There’s something to think about,” said Jody Sasaki, audiologist and director of education for the western region of Widex, another division of WS Audiology. “It’s not just about making things stronger.”
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The audiologist can make sure that the hearing aids fit correctly, in addition to fine-tuning them so that they pick up the sounds that the user wants to hear.
“Your hearing is like a fingerprint,” Sasaki said. “It’s not generic.” Audiologists say it’s important to consult a hearing professional, even if you choose a non-prescription hearing aid.
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The trick is to change public perceptions of hearing aids, Golub said. People of all ages walk around with headphones, some of which are “kind of cool,” he said. “They’re kind of like a positive status instead of a negative one.”
He added: “I dream of one day working with an advertising company to make national ads, sexy ads that encourage people to wear their hearing aids.”
That doesn’t mean it will be easy.
The reality of aging is that “sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not,” Dr. Carla Perissino, a geriatrician and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, told reporters at Age Boom Academy. “Not everything is glamorous.”
Nora McAluzo is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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