A new study definitively found that hearing aids can help older adults with hearing loss. We’ve known this intuitively, of course, but this well-designed study provided the kind of proof that has not existed before.
The study team at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, was led by Larry E. Humes. “The research findings provide firm evidence that hearing aids do, in fact, provide significant benefit to older adults,” Dr. Humes said. “This is important because, even though millions of Americans have hearing loss, there has been an absence of rigorous clinical research that has demonstrated clear benefits provided by hearing aids to older adults.”
The study also found that an over-the-counter model of hearing aid (OTC hearing aids are not yet available) performed almost as well as an expensive hearing aid.
Those fitted with the real hearing aid, as well as a placebo group, also received professional help with fit and instruction. The presence of best-practice audiology services greatly influenced the outcome, even in those receiving the placebo.
The six-week Indiana University study, published in the March issue of American Journal of Audiology, compared outcomes among three groups of patients: One that got a hearing aid that included the services of an audiologist. One that followed an over-the-counter process, with the consumer choosing from among three pre-programmed devices — in actuality, the same high-end digital pair as the first group — but without a fitting. And a control group that got a professional fitting for a placebo hearing aid that had no amplification.
The subjects were 154 adults, ages 55 to 79, with mild to moderate hearing loss. The researchers compared benefits, including user satisfaction and usage of hearing aids after six weeks.
The researchers found that hearing devices helped both the audiologist group and the OTC group., although the OTC group was less satisfied with the hearing aids and less likely to purchase them after the trial. About 55 percent of the OTC participants said they were likely to purchase their hearing aids after the trial vs. 81 percent for the audiologist group.
Satisfaction significantly increased for patients in the OTC group who opted after the formal trial period to continue with an audiologist for a four-week follow-up. More of them also opted to purchase their hearing aids after receiving these audiology services.
Making OTC hearing aids available is the goal of a bill recently introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) authorizing the sale of OTC hearing aids for mild to moderate loss. In an article in JAMA, they wrote: “Increasing access to innovative, low-cost hearing technologies must be part of the policy response to the untreated hearing loss now experienced by millions of Americans.”
The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) also supports the Warren-Grassley bill and issued a call to action to its members to support it. Many members of HLAA have severe to profound hearing loss and would not be candidates for an OTC aid, but as the HLAA statement put it, improving service at the basic end encourages innovative technologies for all types of hearing loss. In addition, the introduction of lower-cost hearing aids and competitive pricing may help bring the cost of all hearing aids down.
Audiologists who are concerned that OTC hearing aids will put them out of business should take comfort in the study’s findings about the benefits of best practices in audiology. If audiologists get behind OTC hearing aids, it could mean hundreds of thousands more patients needing their services.
This would be good for people with hearing loss, and good for audiologists. And if hearing-aid manufactures get into the low-cost hearing business, it will be good for them as well. The study by Humes and colleagues shows that nobody really has anything to lose by encouraging innovation and competition in hearing aids.
For those who would like to read the study, here’s a link to the open-access publication: http://aja.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2608398.
For more information about living with hearing loss, my books “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You” and “Living Better With Hearing Loss” are available at Amazon.com.
This post was first published in a slightly different form on AARP Health on April 7, 2017.