Hearing aids are about to get a lot cooler – new, less expensive devices could shake up the industry

Age-related hearing loss is common – in fact, it is almost certain that anyone who lives long enough will experience it – but it is not commonly treated. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), less than one in three people aged 70 or over who could benefit from hearing aids have used them. And this despite growing evidence for a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, dementia and depression.

Hearing aids, the primary means of treating age-related hearing loss, are expensive. On top of that, people often don’t want to wear them. But that could all change as technology advances and over-the-counter versions are made by companies like Apple AAPL,
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and Bose quickly hit and rocked the market.

And the market is growing as baby boomers’ hearing begins to fade. Hearing loss affects about 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 74, and nearly half of those over 75, according to NIH statistics.

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The key is marketing, said Dr. Justin S. Golub, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Columbia University Medical Center.

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Most people are reluctant to admit that they have a hard time hearing, Golub told reporters at Columbia’s Age Boom Academy 2021 in early May. Age-related hearing loss comes on slowly, so there is an element of denial.

The stigma associated with wearing hearing aids and the cost – up to $ 8,000 for a high-end pair – is holding people back, he said.

That could be about to change. Congress passed a law in 2017 allowing manufacturers to sell hearing aids directly to consumers, without a prescription from an audiologist, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to release draft regulations on safety and efficiency over the next year.

Already, companies are launching headphones that amplify or filter sound, and hearing aid manufacturers are refining their offerings.

More affordable options

Apple AirPods, while not hearing aids, have a “transparency mode” that allows users to adjust amplification settings, and there are settings on Apple devices that allow for custom audio settings. The AirPods Pro version costs $ 250. The company declined to comment on plans for future products.

Bose Sound Control hearing aids sell for $ 849.

BOSE

Bose says its recently released $ 849 SoundControl hearing aids are the first to be approved by the FDA for direct sale to consumers. Designed for mild to moderate hearing loss, they are programmed through an app so users can adjust settings. They’re available in five states to begin with (Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas), and the company plans to sell them nationwide.

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The top three barriers to hearing aid acceptance are price, complexity of access and stigma, said Brian Maguire, Category Manager at Bose Hear. “We really think we have the ability to change these three things over time,” he said.

The idea is to “consume” hearing aids so that people think of them as braces or eyeglasses – two categories that have changed dramatically over the past 15 to 20 years, Maguire said.

Hearing aid manufacturers recognize this too. WS Audiology markets its Signia Active Pro hearing aids to “anyone who wants to look cool and love to hear everything about them and fully engage with everyone who matters most to them,” according to a press release of the society.

“For a very long time, hearing aid use was equated with old age,” said Brian Taylor, director of clinical content development at Signia. This is “one of the most important reasons” why people hesitate to consider them, he said.

Signia’s new product “doesn’t look like traditional hearing aids and kind of breaks the stigma in a lot of ways,” Taylor said. “Whenever a device looks more like a consumer audio gadget and less like a hearing aid, you’ll see a lot of people embrace the device and be ready to wear it.”

Insurance may not cover over-the-counter hearing aids, but people might be able to use their health savings accounts for reimbursement.

You may still need a hearing assessment

People typically get hearing aids for the first time around age 70, according to Taylor, who is also an audiologist. That’s a number the industry would like to reduce, he said, as data shows that early intervention can prevent cognitive decline, social isolation and other conditions associated with hearing loss.

Audiology groups are working with the FDA to develop recommendations for over-the-counter hearing aids. “There is a lot to consider,” said Jodi Sasaki, audiologist and education director for the West Region of Widex, another WS Audiology division. “It’s not just about making things louder.”

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An audiologist can make sure hearing aids fit properly, in addition to fine-tuning them so that they pick up the sounds the user wants to hear.

“Your hearing is like a thumbprint,” Sasaki said. “It’s not generic.” Audiologists say it’s important to consult a professional about your hearing, even if you choose an over-the-counter hearing aid.

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The trick is to change the public’s perception of hearing aids, Golub said. People of all ages walk around with headphones, some of which are “pretty cool,” he noted. “They are kind of a positive status instead of a negative status.”

And, he added, “I dream of someday working with an advertising company to do national ads, sexy ads encouraging people to wear their hearing aids.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

The reality of aging is that “sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not,” Age Boom Academy reporters Dr. Carla Perissinotto, geriatrician and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “It’s not all glamor.

Nora Macaluso is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.

This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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