Could over-the-counter hearing aids reduce your dementia risk?

November 15, 2022 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
hearing aids

Hearing loss affects approximately 37.5 million adults over the age of 18 in U.S. And the severity of hearing loss increases with age, with almost 25% of people 65 to 74 and 50% of people 75 and older experiencing disabling hearing loss. Many people aren’t aware of how significant their hearing problems are, while others are embarrassed to admit that they have trouble with their hearing, so they don’t seek treatment. On average, people wait 10 years before seeking help for hearing loss.

But what many people don’t realize is that leaving hearing loss untreated can have a negative impact on other areas of your health and wellbeing. A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine that tracked 639 adults for almost 12 years found an association between hearing loss and the risk of developing dementia. For people with mild hearing loss, the risk of dementia doubled. For those with moderate hearing loss, the risk tripled. And those with severe hearing loss were five times more likely than people without hearing loss to develop dementia. The researchers noted that brain scans showed a faster rate of atrophy in the brain in people with hearing loss. Other studies also found that hearing loss was associated with 8% of dementia diagnoses.

Untreated hearing loss can also increase the risk of other physical and mental health problems, including:

How hearing aids can improve more than your hearing

One tool that can help improve hearing and lower your risk of dementia and other hearing loss-related problems is a hearing aid. Unfortunately, many of the people who could benefit from hearing aids do not have them. While nearly 29 million adults in the U.S. could benefit from using these devices, fewer than 30% of older people who need hearing aids have ever used them.

For some people, the reason they don’t have a hearing aid is that they don’t believe they need one or are concerned it’s a sign of decline. But for many people, the price of hearing aids is a big stumbling block. On average, the cost of a pair of hearing aids and fitting services is $5,000 or more, which is not covered by Medicare and many other insurance plans.

Last month, after an FDA ruling finalized last August, over-the-counter hearing aids went on sale at pharmacies, supermarkets, electronics stores, and online for the first time ever in the U.S. The cost of these over-the-counter devices ranges from a few hundred dollars to around $2,000, making them a somewhat more affordable option.

There are, however, several things to think about before buying over-the-counter hearing aids:

  • The approved devices are only for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
  • Over-the-counter devices come in two formats—self-fitting, where the user performs self-testing with the devices and adjusts them to their hearing, and ones with preset listening programs, where there is no option to customize settings. Prescription devices, on the other hand, are tailored to fit by an audiologist or other hearing specialist, which can create a more customized fit.
  • If you have not had your hearing tested by an audiologist or other hearing specialist, you may not know what level of hearing loss you’re living with. If your loss is more severe than you think, over-the-counter hearing aids won’t be appropriate.

Questions to ask when considering over-the-counter hearing aids

For the best results, the first thing you should do before exploring over-the-counter hearing aids is to have a hearing exam with an experienced hearing specialist. The specialist can determine how severe your hearing loss is and what the underlying cause is. In most cases, these exams are covered by Medicare and other health insurance plans.

If your hearing loss falls into the mild to moderate category and you want to try an over-the-counter device, think about these issues:

  • What are the device’s capabilities and features? Does it offer noise reduction, rechargeable batteries, wireless connection, synchronization, directional microphones, remote control, telecoils, and other features?
  • How comfortable will it be to wear and how does it look when you’re wearing it, if that’s a concern? There are several styles of hearing aids, including completely-in-the-canal hearing aids, in-the-canal hearing aids, in-the-ear hearing aids, behind-the-ear hearing aids, and receiver-in-canal or receiver-in-the-ear hearing aids.
  • What kind of support does the manufacturer offer? Ask about the return policy and if you can return the devices, how long is the return period. Does the manufacturer offer support with setting up and using the devices, like an online chat or live customer service? Is there a charge for support? Is there a warranty and, if so, what does it include?

If you’re living with hearing loss, a health advisor can connect you with an experienced audiologist and can also help you research your options so you can make an informed decision about treatment.

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