My New Book

SMART HEARING: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better with Hearing Loss. Smart Hearing_Cover_highres

You can get it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in paperback or ebook for Kindle or Nook.

If you’re one of the the millions of Americans who have experienced hearing loss, whether newcomer or longtime veteran, this book is for you. It’s also for your friends and family, employers, counselors, clergy. Hearing loss is much misunderstood.

If you follow my blog, you’ve read some of this, but there’s much much more. Smart Hearing is an easy-to-read, comprehensive look at a big, confusing field. I hope you’ll read it, and share it with others who don’t seem to fully get what it is like to have hearing loss.

The opening chapters are about the basics: how to find an audiologist, how to buy a hearing aid, and how pay for it. Later chapters guide you through the world of assistive listening technology, CART captioning, hearing loops, and telecoils. Find out what a cochlear implant is, and who can benefit from one. Chapters on tinnitus and vertigo offer suggestions for prevention and treatment. (In the case of vertigo, some of the suggestions are from personal experience.)

The past year has been a tumultuous time in the hearing-health field. Smart Hearing untangles the confusion about over-the-counter hearing aids, PSAPs, the FDA and what it approves and what it doesn’t.

Everyday experiences are often frustrating for those with hearing loss: dinner parties, travel, work, restaurants. There’s a chapter on managing each of these challenges.

Finally, Smart Hearing urges reader to take note of the sometimes significant health costs of not treating hearing loss.

I hope you’ll read it and share it, and maybe even get your library to order it.

Hearing Aid Facts and Figures

Almost a year after the passage of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017,  I was curious to know if the bill and the attendant publicity had affected the hearing aid marketplace. So I asked an expert: Abram Bailey of Hearing Tracker.save-money-image

OTC hearing aids won’t be on the market for months, if not years. But the one-year anniversary seemed like a good time to try to establish some kind of benchmark in terms of sales, prices, location where purchased, brands, cost and other issues that may begin to shift after OTC hearing aids become available.

The bipartisan OTC bill, sponsored in the Senate by Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Elizabeth Warren, was signed into law by President Trump in August 2017. The FDA, which regulates hearing aids, has three years from the time the bill was signed for comments and questions. The final regulations will reflect the views not only of consumer advocates but also of audiologists and other medical professionals as well as hearing aid companies and dispensers. Until that comment period is over, there will be no OTC hearing aids.

Abram Bailey constructed a survey that was filled out by over 2000 consumers. (Here is a link to the survey) The respondents were a self-selected group, already aware of their hearing loss and many already wearing hearing aids. The survey was sent to Hearing Tracker followers, HLAA members, and people who follow my blog.

Part 1 of the survey was published last week. Parts 2 and 3, focusing on hearing-aid preference and recommendations, insurance coverage, and purchase of accessories (assistive listening devices, for instance), will be published in the coming weeks.

The survey first established the demographics of the respondents: 54.7 were female and 44.2 male. More than three-quarters were over the age of 55, with pretax income that reflects that of the population at large. More than half were retired. Their self-reported levels of hearing loss ranged from mild to profound, with 18.2 percent reporting that their hearing loss was profound, and 31.4 percent reporting severe hearing loss. As would be expected from the respondents surveyed, many were experienced hearing aid users, over half with 10-plus years of use. This is a very different sample from those who are just now becoming aware of their loss and buying hearing aids, but the trends are interesting.

Almost all (84 percent) bought a pair of hearing aids, as opposed to a single aid. More than half bought what they understood to be top-end hearing aids and more than a third bought mid-range hearing aids. The average price paid was $2560 for a single aid, or $2,336 per aid when purchased as a pair. This is more or less in line with the reports from the President’s Commission on Hearing and Technology (October 2015), which recommended a “basic” hearing aid, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (June 2016), which found an average cost of approximately $4700 for a pair of hearing aids.

The top brand purchased by survey respondents was Phonak, with Oticon and ReSound second and third. Eleven other brands were purchased by at least 10 respondents. Not surprisingly, the share of the US market reflected sales figures, with Sonova (Phonak) accounting for 30 percent. William Demant (Oticon) and GN Resound third. All three also own other brands. (The market share statistics date from 2015, and may have changed.)

Did cost affect market share? Starkey (# 4 in market share at 16 percent) had the highest average price paid ($2,674), with Widex (with 3 percent of market share) being the second most expensive ($2,672). The least expensive were Kirkland Signature (Costco’s house brand) at $963.

I was interested to see that the vast majority were fitted by and bought through audiologists (75.18 percent) or hearing-instrument specialists (20.46 percent) Audiology training is far more rigorous than that of hearing instrument specialists. Hearing aids sold by audiologists (1056 responses) cost on average $2,499 per device, those sold by hearing instrument specialists (337 responses) $1944 averaged per device.

The data also revealed, however, that hearing instrument specialists and audiologists seemed to charge the same amount when in similar settings (a local office, for instance). The disparity may reflect the fact that at Costco hearing professionals are mostly hearing-instrument specialists (40 percent) with only 4 percent audiologists. Those who bought at Costco, the survey found, were more than twice as likely to have been fitted by a hearing aid specialist as by an audiologist. Costco’s current estimated market share is 11 percent of all US hearing aid sales.

Costco sells, in addition to its own brand, Phonak and Resound, at vastly reduced prices. How is this? Abram Bailey speculated that it may be due in part to the fact that the aids sold are not the brand’s latest model (usually one generation behind flagship stores) Costco also can purchase in volume, and has very little overhead for its hearing aid sales.

Most surprising to me was the response to a question about the length of time it took for respondents to buy hearing aids once they had learned about their hearing loss. It is commonly said that most people wait 7 to 10 years before buying hearing aids. Over half the survey  respondents reported buying their first hearing aids within two years of learning they had a loss. As Bailey noted, this discrepancy may be the result of sampling bias (the respondents were all already hearing-aid users) or erroneous self-reporting (a respondent might like to think she had bought hearing aids within two years when in fact it had taken her 4-5 to make that decision.)

As the survey says, Stay tuned for more.

 

 

Debunking the Stigma of Age

Whenever I give talks, there’s one Power-Point slide I use that surprises people. That’s because it directly contradicts the notion that hearing loss is something for the elderly.

As this graph shows, hearing loss is for all of us, male or female, at any age.

Slide05

The majority of people first realize they have hearing loss between the ages of 20 and 59. That’s especially true for men: 64 percent. And it’s close to true for women: 50 percent. This survey was based on self-report, so we don’t know if they “developed” hearing loss at a certain age. More accurately, they first noticed it at a certain age. People are notoriously slow to recognize hearing loss. A study using audiologic metrics would probably find even higher numbers.

So, 64 percent of men with hearing loss first knew they had it between the ages of 20 and 59, and 50 percent of women did. Add those whose hearing loss was detected before the age of 20, and you’ll find that that 79 percent of men had hearing loss by age 60, as did 70 percent of women.

So why do we associate hearing loss with aging? Why is this stigma so powerful?

The elderly do develop hearing loss: But new hearing loss over the age of 60 constitutes a much smaller percentage of the total than those who knew they had a hearing problem when they were younger.  Where does this age=hearing loss idea come from?

Hearing tends to decline with age, so the loss among the elderly is on average more severe than it is in younger people. This prompts people who have had untreated hearing loss for decades to finally get hearing aids.Slide13

Those we notice wearing hearing aids are usually old. This 2012 graph shows that approximately 15 percent those over 80 who need hearing aids have them. It’s not a large number but it’s a whole lot larger than those wearing hearing aids who are younger than 70.

A huge majority of elderly people have hearing loss, and among them a fair number wear hearing aids. This leads to a natural association of hearing loss with aging. Look at the top graph again. The majority of those with hearing loss developed it before they turned 60.

Hearing loss isn’t just for the elderly. So let’s dispense with that stigma of age and take care of our hearing. Get hearing aids!

 

 

 

Study Finds that Hearing Aids Work, but So Do Over-the-Counter-Type Hearing Devices. Both Work Better When an Audiologist Is Involved

Are OTC Devices Better?
Photo: ALAMY

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.

Consumer Reports Rates PSAP’s

Bouton Blog - Consumer Reports
CR looked at hearing devices called PSAP’s – Istock

The February issue of Consumer Reports  magazine took an in-depth look at hearing loss and the hearing aid industry, as well as at the newest “hearing helpers” — less expensive, over-the-counter devices that may help some people with mild to moderate hearing problems.

Titled “No More Suffering in Silence?,” the report included the results of a fall 2015 survey of more than 131,000 of CR‘s subscribers. Nearly half reported they had trouble hearing in noisy environments, yet only 25 percent had had their hearing checked in the past year.

This isn’t surprising, as anyone who follows the hearing-healthcare business knows. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that among adults 20 to 69, only 16 percent of those who could benefit from a hearing aid has one.

Consumer Reports, however, with a subscription base of 7 million, reaches far more people than an NIDCD statistic does. When CR tells its readers about the dangers of untreated hearing loss, it is sending a message to millions who might not otherwise hear it.

The Consumer Reports article begins with an overview of hearing loss, noting the recent changes in understanding of the consequences of hearing loss. Once dismissed as “part of getting older” or a “nuisance,” we now know that untreated hearing loss is a “significant national health concern, one that’s associated with other serious health problems, including depression and a decline in memory and concentration. Several studies even suggest a link between hearing loss and dementia,” the article says.

Cost could be a big reason for this, the magazine notes. The National Academy of Sciences reports that hearing aids cost an average $4,700 per pair in 2013 and can climb to almost twice that price. Plus, hearing aids are usually not covered by health insurance or Medicare.

This is where OTC hearing helpers — also called PSAP’s, for personal sound amplification products — come in. They cost a fraction of the price of an average hearing aid. But do they really work?

The magazine had three of its employees with mild to moderate hearing loss try four devices priced from $20 to $350, wearing them for three to seven days to see how well they could help with hearing in a noisy environment. CR‘s audio labs also tested the devices for amplification, batteries, microphone function and sound distortion.

The most important finding: Pinching pennies can hurt you. The two lowest-priced devices — the Bell & Howell Silver Sonic XL ($20) and the MSA 30X ($30) – were found not only inadequate, but also potentially dangerous. Both overamplified sharp noises, like a siren, to the point where hearing damage could occur.

A hearing-aid researcher who assessed the devices recommended avoiding those under $50. “They don’t seem to help much, if at all, and could actually further diminish your ability to hear,” the magazine reported.

The two PSAPs that fared better were the SoundWorld Solutions C550+ ($350) and the Etymotic Bean ($214 each, $399 for a pair). CR reported on the pros and cons of each device, offering overall “device advice” for each one.

In general, The C55+ and the Bean seem useful for people with mild to moderate loss. The Bean was found to be especially helpful for those with hearing loss in the higher frequencies rather than the lower. For complete details, click here.

If your hearing loss is serious enough to warrant a hearing aid (and much hearing loss is, so have your hearing checked by an audiologist first), the article offered some suggestions for ways to pay less. I’ll write about these in my next post.

 

A version of this post first appeared on AARP Health on March 6, 2017.

Good News About Hearing Loss, With Qualifications

Hearing loss is declining, according to a study published on December 15 by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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At the top of Mt. Etna, April 2016, with Damian Croft of Esplora.co.uk. What does this have to do with hearing loss? Nothing! It’s a New Year’s treat.

This is good news.

But before you put back in those earbuds and conclude that all those reports of an “epidemic” of hearing loss were wildly exaggerated, read a little closer.

The study of almost 4000 adults 20 to 69 years old found that the overall prevalence of hearing loss (as measured in the speech frequencies) dropped from 16 to 14 percent in the years between 1999-2004 and 2011-12.  (Among adults 60 to 69, however, a whopping 39.3 percent still had hearing loss.)

The decline among working age adults was slight but statistically significant. Despite the fact that there was a greater number of older adults, “the estimated number of adults aged 20 to 69 years with hearing loss declined absolutely, from an estimate of 28.0 million in the 1999-2004 cycles to 27.7 million in the 2011-2012 cycle.”

“Our findings show a promising trend of better hearing among adults that spans more than half a century,” said Howard J. Hoffman, M.A., first author on the paper and director of the NIDCD’s Epidemiology and Statistics Program. “The decline in hearing loss rates among adults under age 70 suggests that age-related hearing loss may be delayed until later in life.”

The researchers attributed the decline to a decrease in noisy manufacturing jobs, to increased use of hearing protection (OSHA requirements for hearing protection have helped), to a drop in smoking and to better medical care.

A greater awareness of the dangers of noise may also have helped. It’s no longer unusual to see someone at a sporting event or loud concert wearing protective headphones. It’s the norm for people with ride-on lawn mowers or those doing other kinds of noisy yard work to wear headphones.

But before we celebrate and abandon advocacy for equal access for people with hearing loss, remember that the age group studied is getting older every day. In the coming years we can expect that normal age-related hearing loss will have its usual effects. “Despite the benefit of delayed onset of HI,” the paper concluded, “hearing health care needs will increase as the US population grows and ages.”

We’re still going to need cheaper and more accessible hearing aids. We’re still going to have to defeat the stigma of hearing loss so that people will wear those hearing aids – and help offset or prevent the negative health effects of untreated hearing loss.

We’re making progress against hearing loss, and that’s cause for celebration. But don’t give up the good habits that have allowed us to get to this point. The world is still noisy. We still need to protect our ears. There is still a lot of hearing loss. We need to treat it.

 

This post appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Health on Dec. 22, 2016.

What Do Consumers Want? Try Asking a Consumer.

If you asked consumers what is most important when buying a hearing aid, would they say price or sound quality?

Hearing Tracker, a respected independent online resource for consumers, and USB Evidence Labs recently surveyed more than 360 audiologists about what brands and features consumers ask for most when buying a hearing aid.

Not surprisingly, sound quality came in first by a long shot (56 percent), with reliability a distant second (17 percent) and value for money in third place (12 percent).

I don’t doubt that is exactly what the audiologists’ customers said they wanted. But I also wonder if the answers would have been different if consumers, especially those who never go to an audiologist, had been asked directly. I expect those consumers would say an affordable price was their top priority.

Currently, only 1 in 7 U.S. adults who can benefit from a hearing aid have one. Why don’t the other six?

The answer is cost. “Hearing aids are expensive,” Jan Blustein and Barbara Weinstein wrote in a June 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health. Medicare and most insurance plans don’t cover them, and so consumers typically pay for aids and fittings out of pocket. And that can get costly. The average cost of a single hearing aid is $2,300, but because age-related hearing loss typically affects both ears, that’s a tidy $4,600 — a sum beyond the reach of many older people. Blustein and Weinstein note that “in a recent population-based prospective study, a majority of participants cited cost as a major deterrent to buying a hearing aid.”

Kim Cavitt, a past president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, says audiologists have turned a blind eye to consumer wants. In a recent article headlined “Have We Missed the Signs?” in Hearing Health and Technology Matters, she wrote that consumers “for the past decade have been clamoring for lower-cost amplification solutions,” meaning more affordable hearing aids or hearing aid–like devices.

The devices she refers to are lower-cost products that can effectively help with mild to moderate hearing loss. These won’t replace traditional hearing aids, she wrote but will expand the market by providing a gateway to more advanced traditional hearing aids.

She also noted that consumers want transparent pricing from audiologists — including detailed pricing of various goods and services — and access to assistive listening devices and aural rehabilitation. But mostly, consumers want hearing amplification they can afford.

This month, responding to that consumer demand, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill to ease restrictions for getting hearing aids, including eliminating a required medical exam for many devices. The bill was supported by a number of organizations, including AARP and the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the nation’s largest consumer group representing people with hearing loss.

The legislation preceded an announcement from the Food and Drug Administration that it will no longer require adults to get a medical exam before purchasing certain hearing aids, clearing the way for a new category of over-the-counter devices.

Barbara Kelley, the executive director of the HLAA, endorses both developments.

“Each and every day,” she wrote, “our office receives letters, phone calls and emails from people with hearing loss inquiring about financial assistance to purchase hearing aids (up to 10 requests a day). The financial help page on hearingloss.org is the number one visited page on HLAA’s website. Sadly, there are few financial aid resources. Creating a category of over-the-counter hearing aids will go a long way toward making these essential devices affordable for the millions of Americans who need them.”

Cavitt agrees, although she isn’t by any means discounting the need for audiologists. People with serious hearing loss will always need audiologists and the services that only they can offer, she says.

For now, though, the goal should be finding an easier, financially feasible way to get the remaining 6 out of 7 Americans with hearing loss the devices they need.

 

This post was first published on AARP Heath on December 19, 2016.

For more on hearing loss and hearing health:

shoutingwonthelpLiving Better jpegKatherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.