For hearing health, 2016 had many bright spots, including for me, personally. Gratefully, I raise a toast to these successes:
Wouldn’t it be great if basic hearing aids were as easy to buy as reading glasses? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early December took a big step toward making this happen, announcing that, effective immediately, it would no longer require adults to get a medical evaluation or sign a waiver of the evaluation before buying most hearing aids.
The FDA also said it was considering creating a category of over-the-counter hearing aids to encourage the development and marketing of more “new, innovative and lower-cost products to millions of consumers.” Many consumer groups saw both these developments as important steps toward providing affordable and accessible hearing health care to all.
Hearing loss is being recognized as a national health issue
In June, a series of recommendations on hearing loss announced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine seemed to be proof that hearing loss is finally getting its due as a national health issue.
If followed, these 12 recommendations — combined with those made the previous autumn by a presidential commission on science and technology — could result in a revolution in hearing health care. They would provide changes that would open the market to a wider range of hearing technology and devices, making it easier for consumers to “find and fully use the appropriate, affordable, and high-quality services, technologies, and support they need.”
Dedicated audiologists are making a difference
This one’s personal: I got a new hearing aid. The old one, despite being the most powerful on the market when it was first issued a few years ago, no longer gave me enough sound, especially in the speech frequencies. I was sure a second cochlear implant was imminent. But then my audiologist urged me to try a couple of new devices. The first two didn’t help but then, bingo, the third seemed miraculous. I could hear again. Cochlear implant deferred. Big thanks to my audiologist for her persistence.
Awareness of the importance of auditory training is growing
Increasingly, audiologists are realizing that they can’t just fit clients with a hearing aid or cochlear implant and not provide enough training on how to best hear with it. We need training. I found out just how important this training can be when I went to hearing camp for four days of audiologist-led hearing and brain training.
Theater is becoming enjoyable to everyone
I went to lots of great theater, thanks to the Accessibility Programs of the Theatre Development Fund, which provides open captions to many Broadway and off-Broadway shows. The peak was seeing Hamilton in June, with captions, two days before the Tony Awards. The cast was jazzed, and so was the audience. And I could follow every word.
Voice-to-text recognition systems are also improving and are excellent tools for people with hearing loss. Apple’s Siri answers questions in text, Google Voice translates speech messages into text on a smartphone, and Ava allows a small group of people to speak with instant captioning. Much else is in the works in this area.
It feels like there is some true momentum in the hearing loss field, from new technology to a recognition of the need for hearing access to a new awareness of the dangers of both noise and of untreated hearing loss.
I feel optimistic about the future — both for myself as a person with severe loss and for the millions of Americans with everyday noise- or age-related hearing loss. In the same way that I will still need my expensive prescription eyeglasses while my husband can buy his readers at the supermarket, we seem to be moving toward the same choice for those with hearing loss. While some will be like me, needing a $3,000 hearing aid, there are signs that soon many will be able to buy the equivalent of reading glasses for their ears — over-the-counter hearing devices that cost much less. Here’s hoping 2017 makes that a reality.
This essay first appeared on AARP Health on January 4, 2017.