Have You Heard? OTC Hearing Aids

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As soon as mid-October, a new category of hearing aids will be available without prescription, sold at retail stores, pharmacies and online.  The FDA announced the action in mid-August, a development urged  and praised by President Joe Biden. Close to 30 million adults in the U.S. could benefit from using hearing aids, the FDA says. Yet many do not wear them, often due to expense or stigma.

Traditional Medicare does not cover prescription hearing aids nor do many private insurance plans. They can cost more than $4,000. Some experts estimate the OTC hearing aids will cost about $500 a pair.

Hearing Aid Details

The OTC hearing aids are meant for mild to moderate loss, experts warn, not more severe loss. People with more severe loss will still need a device prescribed and fitted by a hearing health professional, such as an audiologist, ear-nose-throat physician (otolaryngologist) or hearing aid specialist.

The transition to allow some hearing aids to be sold OTC was a long time coming. Congress passed bipartisan legislation in 2017, requiring the FDA (which regulates hearing aids as medical devices) to create a category of OTC hearing aid.  That requirement was not fully implemented until this year.

The makers of the non-prescription hearing aids must follow federal regulations, such as making sure the devices are safe and effective. The package labels must help buyers understand the devices and include warnings about who the devices are meant for.

Say What?

If you’re not sure you have at hearing loss, first consider taking an online hearing test, says James Denneny III, CEO of The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery.

The good news? Most of the major hearing aid companies offer one online, he says – another reason why connectivity is so important to staying healthy and using resources like the ACP (learn more about it here). Just Google “online hearing test from hearing aid companies. to find an online hearing test.

The FDA says the OTC devices might help if sounds or speech seem muffled, if you can’t hear well in a noisy area or on the phone, if you constantly ask someone to repeat themselves, or others ask why your TV or music is turned up so loud.

You’re probably beyond the help of the OTC devices, however, if you can’t hear conversations in a quiet setting or you miss loud sounds—noisy cars or trucks or appliances, or loud music. That calls for an appointment with a hearing professional.

Check, too, for issues such as a buildup of ear wax, which might underlie your hearing difficulties, Denneny says.

If you buy an OTC hearing aid and you’re not getting the benefit you hoped for, don’t give up

And if one ear has more hearing loss than another, ‘’that’s a tipoff you need to get it checked,’’ says John Oghalai, MD, professor and chair of otolaryngology at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “See a doctor.”

If you buy an OTC hearing aid and you’re not getting the benefit you hoped for, don’t give up, he says.  “If it’s not working as well as you would like, that’s where an audiologist would come in, to reprogram it better or pick another device,” Oghalai says.

Even though the OTC devices won’t be for everyone, or may not be a solution long-term, Sarah Sydlowski, PhD, president of the American Academy of Audiology and an audiologist at Cleveland Clinic, welcomes the new option. “Hearing is really important for our health,” she says. “That has long been overlooked. This is the push we really need to elevate the importance of hearing loss in people’s minds.”

Health Impact of Hearing Loss 

If nagging from a loved one doesn’t get people with hearing loss to seek help, hearing the list of health effects might.

Hearing loss can cause anxiety, depression and lessen quality of life, Sydlowski says. “It also impacts the ability to have a good patient-doctor interaction,” she says. And, even more sobering, experts now believe hearing loss could be not just a risk factor for dementia, but may account for 8% of dementia cases. Another study has found those fitted with a hearing aid for newly diagnosed loss had a lower chance of developing dementia over the next three years.

Sydlowski answers FAQs here, and the Hearing Loss Association of America has extensive information on hearing health.

Want to learn more about how to apply for the Affordable Connectivity Program?  Get help with Senior Planet’s Aging Connected Program; details are here

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, specializing in health, behavior, fitness and lifestyle stories. Besides writing for Senior Planet, she reports for WebMD, Medscape, Endocrine Web, Practical Pain Management, Spine Universe and other sites.  She is a mom, mother-in-law and proud and happy Mimi who likes to hike, jog and shop.

Doheny photo: Shaun Newton

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This article offered by Senior Planet and Older Adults Technology Services is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition or before starting an exercise program. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

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