Remember last week when I wrote a blog post about how so much non-life-threatening health or medical stuff that can go wrong in old age is located above the neck?
Even so, in the United States, Medicare excludes coverage of almost everything above the neck.
We personally foot the bill for medical needs related to our eyes, ears and teeth except, in many cases, when they involve surgery. Correction for cataracts is one example as are cochlear implants.
But in general, we are on the hook for what is, usually, thousands of dollars and even tens of thousands of dollars as was the case with my teeth several years ago.
Another pricey, above-the-neck treatment is hearing aids. One-third of Americans age 65-75 have some degree of hearing loss. That goes up to nearly 50 percent in people older than 75.
In addition, only about 20 percent of people who could benefit use hearing aids. Some may reject them because of the social stigma attached but undoubtedly, for many, it is due to the price which can easily top $4,000 for both ears and experts estimate their life span is from only three to seven years.
Now, there is an affordable alternative ($10 to $500 or so) for some with certain kinds of hearing loss.
Last year, in a full-on, bipartisan voice vote in the Senate and 94-to-1 vote in the House, the U.S. Congress passed H.R. 2430: FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017. The president signed it into law on 18 August 2017.
The bill is an amalgam of several other stand-alone health care bills including the notable provision we are concerned with today. H.R. 2430, as govTrack reports, “Allows certain types of hearing aids to be sold over the counter.”
Leading up to the vote, there was strong opposition from organizations representing hearing aid professionals, and even gun rights groups which, according to GovTrack, “claimed the provision could allow the FDA to regulate sound amplification devices often used by hunters.” (Not true, says GovTrack.)
Let me be clear: whatever Govtrack says, the devices at issue are not hearing aids or, at least, are not called that. They are called Personal Sound Amplification Products, or PSAPs for short. They are what the name says, sound amplification devices that are one-size-fits-all, cannot be adjusted to individual hearing loss and should not be considered a replacement for hearing aids.
It saves me a lot of effort when I can piggyback on other people's work and in hunting around the web, I found that the most useful, basic information on PSAP devices came from Consumer Reports.
Earlier this year, they reported on a small study of PSAPs published the Journal of the American Medical Association in which:
”...researchers pitted five different PSAPs against a traditional hearing aid. They found that among 42 older adults with mild to moderate hearing loss, three of the five PSAPs performed nearly as well as the hearing aid.
“Some PSAPS may help with mild to moderate hearing challenges (such as difficulty hearing the TV or a conversation in a noisy bar), experts say, but won’t work for more severe hearing loss.”
As noted above, there are cheap PSAPs and more expensive ones. Consumer Reports breaks down what to expect from differently priced PSAPS they tested in their labs:
”The two cheaper models we tested, the Bell & Howell Silver Sonic XL, $20, and the MSA 30X, $30, offer basic functions, such as on/off switches and volume control.
“Pricier models, such as the SoundWorld Solutions CS50+, $350, allow you to customize settings to amplify sounds in the frequencies where you need the most help or stream music or take phone calls through your smartphone via Bluetooth.
“These pricier PSAPs might also have such features as a directional microphone, which can pick up sounds in front of you and not those behind or to the side of you. This makes it easier to hear conversations in a crowded restaurant or other noisy places.
In their report on PSAPs, Consumer Reports is careful to issue this warning:
"Additionally, our hearing expert says these low-end devices might overamplify loud noises, such as a fire engine wail, which could potentially damage hearing further.”
The magazine also says that PSAPs are generally simple and straightforward to use but as with Ikea, there is some work getting started:
”You have to learn how to insert and remove the device from the ear, adjust the settings to maximize its performance, change the battery, and clean and maintain it...
“Certain parts could also be small and hard to manipulate, and some higher-end PSAPs may require you to download an app for making adjustments.”
In the end, Consumer Reports suggests you consider what is most important to you in using a PSAP:
”If you simply want a little amplification while watching TV, for example, you may do well with a moderately priced device. But if you’re looking for help in a range of situations - dining out with friends, taking phone calls, listening to music - you might consider a pricier, full-featured version.
“For now, however, CR advises that you avoid very inexpensive models, such as those under $50.”
Unless one's hearing loss is complex enough to need an audiologist, I think this is a great idea. There was a time, not so long ago, when reading glasses required a prescription from an optometrist or ophthalmologist and were quite pricey. Now we can pick them up with the toothpaste and vitamins.
As several readers noted in last week's post, untreated hearing loss can be a serious health hazard. It can lead to social isolation, loneliness, reduced personal safety, impaired memory and more.
PSAPs are not an ideal solution (yet; they will undoubtedly get better over time) and they are not for every kind of hearing loss. But for many it can improve lives at an affordable price.
Be sure to do your homework before purchasing a PSAP and, perhaps, consult an audiologist, too.
Below are a few additional links for more information. Do keep in mind as you check into PSAPs that the professional hearing loss community quite understandably does not usually recommend them. I'm pretty sure the professional eyecare community wasn't too hot about drugstore readers either when they first appeared. But do consider the source when you read recommendations.
If you have used or are using a PSAP, please let us know in the comments how they are working for you.