Hearing loss can be frustrating and isolating. You can’t participate fully in life around you when you can’t hear what’s going on. It’s a common problem. Nearly one-third of people age 65 to 74 and almost half of those 75 and older have trouble hearing, according to a study cited by Consumer Reports.
Fortunately, technology has transformed hearing aids. The newest contain microcomputers to deliver accurate sound and comfort without the kind of aggravating feedback problems common in older models. At the high end, hearing aids can be really costly, but many people get satisfaction with midrange or budget hearing aids, and relatively cheap sound amplifiers can help people with mild hearing loss.
We’ll discuss costs more below. First, let’s look at how to shop wisely.
Get a medical exam
Hearing aid salespeople will want to give you a hearing evaluation before selling you a product. First, get a medical examination, preferably by a board-certified ear, nose and throat physician (ENT).
This exam should determine whether your hearing problem can be medically treated before you spend thousands of dollars on hearing aids. Workplace insurance may cover the exam, and Medicare Part B insurance covers diagnostic hearing exams ordered by a doctor, but does not cover routine hearing tests, hearing aids, or exams for fitting hearing aids. (Here are the rules, at Medicare.gov.)
Until recently, federal regulations required salespeople to get a written statement from you, signed by a licensed physician, before selling you hearing aids. That rule has been suspended, the FDA announced in December 2016, as part of an effort to spark greater innovation, affordability and accessibility in the hearing device marketplace.
Next step: a hearing evaluation
Nonetheless, your doctor is a good place to start. If he or she recommends you pursue hearing aids, the next step is a hearing evaluation. This is a thorough assessment of your hearing by an audiologist or a hearing aid dispenser who is credentialed in your state to measure hearing, fit hearing aids and sell them.
What they recommend will depend in part on what type of hearing loss you have. One common type of hearing loss among adults is sensorineural — damage to the nerves of the inner ear — from disease, age, injury or a genetic disorder. Another is conductive hearing loss, caused by infection or a build-up of fluid or ear wax and affects the outer or middle ear. Some people experience a combination of these types of hearing loss.
Costs vary but expect to pay around $150 to $225 for the evaluation, according to the University of Texas‘ Callier Center for Communication Disorders.
Because these are such costly products, deal only with reputable professionals. Check dealers’ names against records of complaints at your local or state consumer protection agency (find it here at USA.gov), state attorney general’s office, state licensing agency or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. You can find certified audiologists, credentialed professionals trained in evaluating hearing and fitting hearing aids, in your area at the ASHA website.
- If you feel sales pressure, leave and shop elsewhere.
- Look for hearing aids with trial periods of 30 to 60 days.
- Find out how much money you’ll get back if you return the product during the trial period.
- Get all promises and guarantees written into your purchase agreement.
A wide variety of hearing aids are available. Few of the devices sold today are the older analog type. Digital aids now dominate the market.
- Behind-the-ear (BTE): Helpful with mild to profound hearing loss, these devices may use Bluetooth technology to connect directly to a mobile phone.
- In-the-ear (ITE): For mild to severe hearing loss.
- In-the-canal (ITC): These models, for mild to moderately severe hearing loss, are nearly hidden in the ear canal.
Digital hearing aids use microphones to pick up sound and amplify it. Sound is adjusted through the hearing aid settings and sent directly to your ear or through a small tube or wire connected to an ear mold. The in-the-canal type and in-the-ear type are the most popular, although many adults also like the BTE open-fit style, ASHA says.
“Extended-wear” aids are nonsurgically placed in the ear canal by an audiologist. Other types of aids are used for more complex types of hearing loss.