Hearing loss is one of the least attended health problems in the United States. That's just my opinion but take a look at the statistics. According to The New York Times:
• Hearing loss affects 45 percent of people age 70-74
• Hearing loss affects 80 percent of people who are 85 and older
• Fewer than 20 percent of people with hearing loss use hearing aids
Some of the 80 percent who do not use hearing devices are concerned about the stigma that still attaches. There are other, more serious reasons people do not seek help for their hearing difficulty:
- Medicare, by deliberate legislation when it was created in 1965, does not cover hearing loss examination, treatment or devices
- The hearing aid business has an anecdotal reputation problem most of us are familiar with. That organizations such as AARP warn [pdf] people to carefully check the credentials of hearing specialists doesn't create a great deal of confidence
- Average hearing aid cost is about $2500 per aid, many people need two of them and that is for the devices only, not examinations and other specialist fees
Here is one person's – mine - hearing story.
Although I've had trouble since I was 30-something hearing nearby voices in noisy rooms such as restaurants, I just avoid them. For 10 years or so, I have lived with tinnitus but except that I long for some silence in my life, it doesn't affect hearing in general which is a good thing since there is no treatment for it.
More recently a different hearing problem has developed; it has become hard to hear dialogue on television.
The difficulty is not volume. In fact, I no longer go to movies in theaters because the audio is jacked up so high it hurts my ears. Instead this new-ish issue is that voices at certain timbres or pitches turn into gibberish. I can hear them perfectly well; it is just that the actors could be speaking Martian as far as I can tell.
But not all television audio is unintelligible. I hear news programs, documentaries, talk shows and other kinds of live broadcasts perfectly well (radio too) along with replays of these shows.
My hearing problem is specific to a large percentage of scripted programs, original TV and theatrical movies broadcast on television. I have become an adept lip reader but drama – and comedy – is such that half the time the person speaking has his/her back to the camera.
Two months ago, Consumer Reports published a “Hearing Aid Buying Guide” which is as useful and thorough as we have come to expect from this organization.
There is an overview of the causes of hearing loss, an excellent explanation of types of hearing aids with their various, individual features along with a list of considerations in choosing a hearing aid provider - from a medical doctor to hearing specialists:
”The professionals you might encounter at independent hearing-aid providers could fall into two categories: Audiologists or hearing-aid specialists (also called hearing-instrument specialists). Both types of professionals can evaluate your hearing and fit your hearing aids. But their training varies significantly.
“Audiologists must have a doctoral degree (Au.D.), and more than 1,000 hours of clinical training. Hearing-aid specialists generally have six months to two years of supervised training or a two-year college degree.”
Even if you have no hearing difficulty now this Consumer Reports guide is worth saving for possible future use.
Earlier this week, writing in The New York Times, reporter Paula Span looked at the Personal Sound Amplifiers (PSAPs).
”...many of us with mild to moderate hearing loss may consider a relatively inexpensive alternative: personal sound amplification products, or P.S.A.P.s. They offer some promise — and some perils, too,” she writes.
“Unlike for a hearing aid, you don’t need an audiologist to obtain a P.S.A.P. You see these gizmos advertised on the back pages of magazines or on sale at drugstore chains. You can buy them online.”
As Span notes, PSAPs are unregulated and, in fact, manufacturers are not allowed to label or market them as usable for hearing loss. And, many of them are terrible ripoffs. But some, she says, are not:
”Dr. Reed has tested just 29 participants so far, he cautioned, and real-world results will vary. Still, he and his colleagues were impressed with three P.S.A.P.s.
“The Soundhawk, which operates with a smartphone, performed almost as well as the hearing aid, with a list price of $399. The CS50+, made by Soundworld Solutions, and the Bean T-Coil, from Etymotic, worked nearly as well and list for about $350.”
If that sounds like something you want to look into, be sure to read the entire Times piece and the Consumer Reports guide that, like Span, warns of the shortcomings:
”These over-the-counter products generally have fewer features and less functionality than hearing aids...These are designed for people who want to amplify certain sounds—and they aren't subject to the same safety and effectiveness standards that hearing aids are.”
Probably not coincidentally, this same week Lori Orlov, the marketing expert who publishes the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog, has a short, informative list of five of the latest hearing technology gadgets. No reviews, just information about what is new on the immediate horizon.
As to my hearing? It is a big concern that my problem is gobbledegook, not volume because I suspect that makes it a brain, not ear, issue. So I'll start with my physician. If the outcome is interesting or useful, I'll let you know.
Meanwhile, it is unconscionable that Medicare does not cover hearing loss. Actually, you can think of this failure as cutting off the heads of elders; Medicare also does not cover routine vision and dental care.