High-Tech Hearing

Will earbud-style, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids encourage the tens of millions of Americans with untreated hearing loss to get assistance?

Five Figures to Consider

48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss
80% of Americans with hearing loss do NOT use hearing aids
52% increased risk of dementia for those with untreated hearing loss
$4,107 for hearing aids at a hearing aid store
$1,650 for Eargo Plus buds purchased online

The consumer electronics revolution is finally coming to the hearing aid marketplace, and millions of Americans stand to benefit. Not only are hearing aids now available online and at places like Costco, but a new marketplace for over-the-counter hearing aids is developing. Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids can connect to your smartphone to stream music, play audio from a mobile device or act as an earphone when answering a call. In the near future they might also turn on the lights when you enter a room, measure the number of steps you take each day, offer navigational assistance or even remind you of the name of the person you’re speaking to.

These nascent innovations are expected to improve hearing — and even overall health — for millions of Americans, especially those with mild to moderate hearing loss. Currently 48 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. That includes 20% of American teens and adults, and 66% of people older than age 70. Yet, fewer than 20% of people with hearing loss use hearing aids, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. And it takes seven years from the time a person begins to notice their hearing loss until they actually seek help.

The health risks of untreated hearing loss are significant. A report published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that people with untreated hearing loss experience a 52% greater risk of dementia, a 41% greater risk of depression and a 30% increased risk of falls. In addition to the distress brought on by those health conditions come increased costs for individuals and insurers. The JAMA report found that people with untreated hearing loss incurred 46% higher total health care costs ($22,434) over the 10-year period studied. Yet, most insurers, including traditional Medicare, do not cover hearing aids.

That is one reason hearing aids are considered unaffordable by most people with hearing loss. One survey found that 64% of people with the most serious hearing loss reported that they could not afford a hearing aid. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, the cost of a pair of hearing aids at a hearing aid store averaged $4,107.  At Costco, which sells its own brand and others through its Costco Hearing Centers, the average price was $1,926 for a pair.

Why hasn’t technology driven down hearing aid prices? Primarily because federal and state regulations have protected a hearing aid marketplace dominated by licensed hearing aid vendors that have tight relationships with particular hearing aid manufacturers and bundle hearing aid purchases in expensive packages that include evaluation and follow-up appointments for fittings and adjustments. The result has been a lack of innovation and price competition. (A 2010 study suggested that a hearing aid’s components cost less than $100; the number today is likely less.)

What is changing? Companies like Eargo are creating inconspicuous and even stylish aids that they are able to sell directly to the consumer by classifying them as “personal sound amplification products” as opposed to “hearing aids.” (The FDA defines a PSAP as a wearable consumer electronic product meant to amplify sounds for those with unimpaired hearing. Because PSAPs are supposedly not intended to compensate for hearing loss, the FDA does not regulate them as hearing aids.) Prices for a pair of Eargo earbuds range from $1,650 to $2,750.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of drafting regulations for a new over-the-counter hearing aid market that will make it easier for consumers to purchase hearing aids that they can fit and program without the assistance of a licensed hearing specialist. People with mild-to-moderate hearing loss will shop for hearing aids like they shop for reading glasses.

Last month the FDA gave marketing approval to a new, self-fitting hearing aid manufactured by Bose Corp., the maker of high-end headphones and speakers. Bose submitted results from clinical trials indicating that participants could self-fit their hearing devices just as well as the professionals did. The Bose device consists of earbuds connected to a neckband and looks more like a consumer electronic product than a traditional hearing aid.  In addition to functioning as a traditional hearing aid, it can be used for placing and receiving telephone calls and for streaming Bluetooth audio. Designs like those from Bose and Eargo may help to overcome some of the stigma associated with wearing a hearing aid and encourage tech-savvy consumers to seek hearing assistance.

Sources

AARP, Better Hearing Institute, Bose Corp., Consumer Reports, EarGo, Hearing Loss Association of America, Journal of the American Medical Association, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, U.S. Food and Drug Administration