Coming soon: better accessibility to hearing aids

Published 4:50 pm Friday, August 19, 2022

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Many people end up with hearing loss as they get older, so it’s not something that’s uncommon. But now, it might be a little easier and a little more affordable to accommodate that issue.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized a rule this week which will allow the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing impairment. That means you won’t have to visit a doctor and get a prescription to access the devices. There are exceptions, of course. Hearing aids for children as well as people with severe hearing impairment will still need to use prescription devices.

I don’t have hearing loss myself, but I’m always interested in spreading information about accessibility resources, so I read more about the topic this week.

The FDA estimates that at least 30 million adults in the United States could benefit from hearing aid use, but only about 14 percent of people actually use them. Part of the problem in the past has been high costs. Hearing aid devices can range from $1,000 to $6,000 per ear. A recent investigative report has also shown that 90 percent of the market for the devices are controlled by only five manufacturers.

The new change to provide OTC hearing aids may add more competition to the marketplace, which would help lower costs.

An article from NPR in 2019 shared information on how untreated hearing loss can lead to increased loneliness and isolation in senior citizens. One lady interviewed said she thought her microwave was broken because she couldn’t hear it beep anymore. She stopped attending church because she couldn’t hear the sermons. When she moved, her new neighbors thought she was “standoffish” and ignoring them when she actually just hadn’t heard them calling out to her.

She didn’t seek help for her hearing loss because of the cost.

Others have cited the stigma and technical difficulties as additional reasons why they didn’t seek out assistance for their hearing loss.

A number of studies have shown that when a person’s hearing declines, their loneliness increases, which then can have a number of detrimental effects on a person’s health. One study purportedly said that untreated hearing loss can increase the risk of dementia by 50 percent, depression by 40 percent, and falls by 30 percent.

None of those things are something any person would want to deal with, especially if they can be preventable.

Eventually, the lady in the NPR article – the one who couldn’t hear her microwave – joined a test for a new hearing program conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins. She was able to use a “personal amplification” product to assist with her hearing issue. The change made a huge impact on her life.

“This got me back out into the community,” she said. “They got me out of my little shell that I’d built up.”

For people who may be interested in purchasing an OTC hearing aid when it’s available (estimated to be sometime in October this year), the website has provided some tips to get you started.

First, you should figure out if you fall into the category of “mild to moderate” hearing loss. The website says that you might be in that category if you have trouble understanding conversations in groups, with background noise, or when you can’t see who is talking; you have trouble hearing on the telephone; you need to turn up the volume of television or radio loud enough for others to complain; your friends or family complain that you don’t understand speech, and ask them to repeat often.

OTC hearing aids might not be able to help if your hearing loss is more severe, such as if you have trouble hearing conversations in quiet environments or trouble hearing loud sounds like power tools or motor vehicles. You’d need to see a doctor for assistance with that level of hearing loss.

Some questions to consider when purchasing OTC hearing aids: is there a free trial or money-back return policy; does it need a smartphone or app to operate; is it compatible with cellphones; does it have connectivity with other devices; can the amplification be adjusted; is it water/sweat resistant; does it reduce or block out background or wind noise; and how long is the battery life.

The website also notes that it may take time to adjust to a hearing device, and you may need to try multiple products before you find what’s right for you. If there are any adverse effects, you should see a doctor.

I think this new opportunity is great news that’ll help a lot of people. There should always be affordable options available for health issues, especially when it’s a problem that’s easily treatable.

But it shouldn’t stop there. We should all work to ensure that accessibility opportunities are available for people with severe or permanent hearing loss as well. I wrote last year about AMC Theatres, for example, adding open captioning to selected movie showings to make the experience more enjoyable for deaf or hard-of-hearing moviegoers. What a simple solution to help people that could have been implemented years ago.

Education, I believe, is the key to making things better for everyone. We may not be in the position of the FDA or a movie theater chain to make such sweeping changes, but even learning more about the issues some people face can help make a difference in the future.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or at 252-332-7206.