Age-related Hearing Loss and What You Can Do About It

Many hearing aids are nearly undetectable.

When I stopped asking people to repeat what they’d said. At 60 years old, it was apparently too much work to even try to understand what I couldn’t hear. I had spent nearly a decade leaning forward in conversations, finding a seat up front in lectures and giving up on hearing anyone in a noisy kitchen. It wasn’t until after a week of wearing demo hearing aids, returning them and within five minutes reverting to my habitual, “What’s that?” that I knew for sure: My hearing was significantly impaired.

How You Know   

The Minnesota Department of Human Services, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Division puts out pamphlets and fliers about hearing loss, including my own: age-related hearing loss. The signs include those above and others like withdrawal during group discussions, not hearing the doorbell and turning up the volume on the TV so high those watching with you complain. Another, more direct way of knowing is to have your hearing professionally evaluated.

Losing the Stigma and Finding Transparency

Kim Fishman is the owner and audiologist at Chears Audiology on 36th Street in St. Louis Park. “It’s often after around seven years of hearing difficulties,” she says—a number which eerily corresponds to my own experience—“that people finally investigate the problem.” According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, by the age of 65, one in three people have a hearing loss, and yet, says Fishman, only around a third of those people are getting help. While this may be due to the expense of hearing aids (most of which is not covered by insurance, including Medicare, in this country), Fishman states “even in countries with socialized medicine, the number of people getting help is less than 40 percent.” In other words, even when hearing aids are available at a reduced price or for free, many people who need them don’t get them.

Why not? Stigma certainly plays a role: Old people wear hearing aids, right? And boomers don’t like to consider themselves “old.” But at least for me, that was only part of the problem. The other is an issue of transparency: Getting hearing aids was about as attractive as buying a used car, only with far fewer resources to sift through the myriad options on the market.

For example, recent federal legislation in the form of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 requires the FDA to create a new category of hearing aids for consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss. These devices would be mainly in the form of personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), a one-size-fits-all hearing aid generally available at a fraction of the price of traditional hearing aids ($300–$500 per PSAP vs. $1,500 and more per single hearing aid). There’s a catch, of course: The devices work best for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. The other issue, repeated to me by Fishman, and Marie Koehler and Mary Bauer of Minnesota Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, is while the legislation has passed, it will likely be at least three years before over-the-counter hearing aids come to market. No one really knows what products will be available then, and what their quality will be.

In the meantime, you may see ads in magazines and newspapers: Be the first to try these hearing aids and get them free! Sam’s Club and Costco in St. Louis Park sell hearing aids: Is it a good idea to buy from them? What about businesses selling only one kind of hearing aid, like Starkey or Miracle Ear?

What to Do

Fishman is a personable professional and business woman determined to clear the air about best practices for the purchase of hearing aids. Bauer and Koehler reiterated the importance of each of these criteria suggested by Fishman:

1. Check with your insurer about hearing aid coverage. A good practitioner will assist you with this check.

2. Have your hearing professionally evaluated. Several professionals are licensed to do so: physicians, audiologists, licensed hearing instrument specialists. Frequently, the evaluation IS covered by insurance, so don’t be overly influenced by the promise of a free evaluation. ANY evaluation is legally yours, to remove from the premises and shop around for products.

3. If a hearing loss is diagnosed, take your hearing evaluation to a number of practitioners to see what they can do for you. Educate yourself about the options. Fishman can help, as can Bauer and Koehler. Try out different products (like PSAP’s, in-ear and on-ear hearing aids) and brands (for example, Widex, Resound, Oticon, among many). For a small fee, which you should feel empowered to negotiate, you can sometimes get a demo pair of PSAPs or any of a variety of hearing aids. I found having the opportunity to wear the devices outside of the practitioner’s office, for several days, was invaluable in deciding how they worked for me.

4. Know the law: Any hearing aids purchased are fully refundable (with a nonrefundable fee which cannot exceed $250) within 45 days of purchase. You may, within this period, trade for another model or you may request all of your money back. If a demo unit of any device is not available, this 45-day trial period is another perfectly legitimate way to try a specific product—or several different products.

5. Make sure you understand the various fees being charged to you (also called “unbundling”) should you purchase hearing aids. Fishman will give you a complete breakdown of charges for product vs. service, and others are starting to do so, as well. Insurance for loss and damage should be included.

The Bottom Line

Hearing aids can be expensive. Insurance often doesn’t pay. Health Savings Accounts (HSA) can be used for their purchase. Bauer and Koehler can give you many other ideas to offset the expense, but many people will end up paying largely out-of-pocket.

Here’s what I can tell you: The first thing I felt when I wore functional hearing aids was a huge sense of relief. I was told this is not uncommon. “Hearing loss is very stressful,” says Fishman. “People work very hard to both cover their hearing loss and to understand what other people are saying.”

One final thought: if you know someone--often older, and/or with dementia-- who can’t or won’t consider hearing aids, ask Bauer and Koehler about a much less expensive device called a “pocket talker.” It’s not particularly cosmetic, but may provide a much-needed way to reconnect with family and friends.

LOCAL:
Kim Fishman
Audiologist and Owner / Chears Audiology / 5808 West 36th St., St. Louis Park / 952.767.0672

Marie Koehler
Regional Manager
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services Metro / 85 E. 7th Place Suite 105, St Paul / 651.431.5964 / Marie.Koehler@stte.mn.us
 
Mary Bauer
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Specialist / 85 E. 7th Place, St Paul / 651.431.5987 / Mary.bauer@state.mn.us

For more information, visit the website here and look for these reading titles: “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services” / “Telephone Equipment Distribution” / “Own Your Future ‘Hear’” /  “Age-Related Hearing Loss”