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.