By: Dr. Hope Lanter, Lead Audiologist at hear.com
As many as 48 million Americans suffer from noise-related hearing loss, making it the third most common chronic health condition in the United States. In fact, twice as many people suffer from hearing loss as diabetes or cancer, and it affects all ages with wide-ranging implications.
Not only can hearing loss severely affect quality of life, causing people to withdraw from social activities, creating problems in relationships and contributing to depression and anxiety, but studies also show that it may create economic disadvantages: those with hearing loss are more likely to experience unemployment, under employment and lower income compared to those with normal hearing.
Despite these issues, less than half of those with hearing loss seek treatment, and those who do wait an average of seven years before getting help. In some cases, it’s because of stigma and embarrassment—they associate hearing loss with old age or a disability. But for others, it’s a lack of access to treatment or assumptions that the technology is antiquated and cumbersome.
In fact, new advances in hearing loss treatment and devices are making it easier and more attractive to seek help. Here are three such innovations that can restore hearing—and quality of life—for millions of Americans in the coming year.
- Telehealth provides broader access to treatment. As telehealth usage increased 38X over the course of the pandemic, we’ve also seen a huge surge in demand for teleaudiology with a 500% increase in the number of online hearing tests scheduled. Because telehealth makes it more accessible and safer to seek treatment, it can greatly expand access to hearing aids, especially for those with compromised immunity or transportation challenges.
Some providers even deliver innovative “clinic-in-a-box” kits to patients’ homes that include an otoscope and tablet that they or a caregiver use as part of the assessment. During the telehealth visit, the hearing care provider guides the patient in placing the otoscope into the ear for examination, and they can conduct the hearing assessment from the comfort of home.
There are some inherent challenges with telehealth and teleaudiology, such as internet access, physical limitations of the patient, and ensuring there’s a quiet environment to conduct the hearing test. But under the right conditions, it can be an ideal option for many people.
- Greater access to affordable products. If enacted, the current version of the proposed Build Back Better Act would expand hearing benefits for those on Medicare, adding coverage of hearing assessment and hearing aids for millions of Americans. But while that remains to be seen, there are other options.
Some over-the-counter (OTC) hearing assist devices may be appropriate for individuals with mild hearing loss. You’ve probably seen these devices advertised, some of which mimic the look of a Bluetooth handsfree device for a cell phone. These can work for some people, particularly for at-home use, such as watching television, but these are one-size-fits-all products. They will not be fitted for your needs and are comparable to the magnifying reading glasses found in the drug store: they may work in the short-term, but you will likely need to upgrade to a medical-grade device at some point.
And you may end up spending more in the long-run with OTC products—since medical-grade hearing aids can be adjusted and tuned to your needs over time, they last much longer. Instead, it may be best to consult with a hearing care provider to find a medical-grade hearing aid that matches your lifestyle and your budget.
Also keep in mind that some health benefit plans offer discounts on hearing aid assessment and treatment, and it may also quality for coverage under your Flexible Spending Account (FSA).
- New technologies offer convenience and performance. Hearing aids have come a long way since your grandfather wore them. Today’s devices offer superior performance in a much smaller, sleeker device, including some in-ear models that are barely detectable.
Enhanced speech focus is one of the most popular new features, providing an aggressive speech emphasis with background noise cancellation that allows the user to hear well even in distracting environments. The newest devices also offer customizable controls that put the user in the drivers’ seat to adjust for different environments through a simple smartphone app.
Many hearing aids also offer the convenience of Bluetooth integration, doubling as earbuds to allow users to connect to any smartphone, smart TV or other device to stream audio. And most also offer quick-charge options to ensure they’re always ready when you need them.
As hearing aid providers continue to innovate, eventually we’ll see even smarter features like built-in language translation and even biometric monitoring to track steps, heart rate and other health stats. As state-of-the-art devices become smaller, more accessible, more advanced and more affordable, there’s no reason to be embarrassed about seeking treatment for hearing loss. Instead, modern hearing aid devices can help you get back to enjoying life with those you love.