Hearing loss is a health condition that many people all over the world grapple with. In the US alone, approximately 30 million Americans have mild to moderate hearing loss. Though the majority of these individuals would benefit from the most common type of hearing aid (called air-conduction devices), US officials estimate that as many as 80 percent of them don’t seek treatment.
A big reason for this is the price tag of hearing aids. Those shopping for medical-grade devices prescribed by audiologists end up paying between $2,000 and $3,000 due to the multiple office visits for screenings, fittings, and adjustments.
However, thanks to a Food and Drug Administration ruling last month, that allows retail sales of hearing aids, things are going to change. Starting in mid-October of this year, newly approved over-the-counter sales of hearing aids at pharmacies and electronics stores will begin, bringing the cost of the devices down to around $300 to $500.
This remarkable drop in price will undoubtedly remove the budget barriers that millions of hearing-challenged adults struggled with in the past.
It is worth noting that the new FDA rule applies to the air-conduction devices mentioned above, but does not extend to cochlear implants. These require a surgical procedure and are usually prescribed to patients with more severe hearing loss.
Other benefits of better access to hearing aids
Regardless, improving access to hearing aids will enhance more than patients’ hearing. The hope is that over-the-counter sales will also accelerate innovation and even cognitive health.
‘Any time you develop ubiquitous applications of technology, you open the door for innovation,” says Beth Wilson, 61, a Massachusetts resident who has worn medically prescribed hearing aids for most of her life. “This will address the problem of people who have moderate hearing loss and could benefit from a hearing aid. But they find it daunting to go to a doctor, get a referral to an audiologist, go get a screening, [and] get fitted with the device.”
Retail sales will also boost the options for people with hearing loss who live in rural areas where medical specialists aren’t as accessible.
In terms of cognitive health, recent studies suggest a link between hearing loss and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“It may not be a cause and effect,” says Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “But if people withdraw because of their hearing loss, that’s certainly not a good thing.” Now, researchers are investigating whether the social isolation experienced by many with hearing loss also contributes to atrophy of brain functions.
The future “cool factor” of hearing aids
Besides the cost, another barrier that prevents adults with hearing loss from seeking treatment is vanity. Many people struggle to embrace hearing aids because of their association with “getting old.” However, seeing as the market for hearing aids is expected to triple by the end of the decade, the stigma of hearing aids could also drop away.
“I’m hoping that we’re going to see breakthroughs in technology and innovation,” says Dr. Meaghan Reed, director of clinical audiology at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. “If I am wearing something that looks more like a Bluetooth earphone or an Apple Air Pod, that’s going to remove the stigma of age… that some people associate with hearing aids.”