What Seniors Need to Know About Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

OTC hearing aids

If you’re a senior with hearing loss that gets worse as you get older, you’re certainly not alone. About 40 million Americans aged 50 and older suffer from hearing loss, and about two-thirds of those aged 70 and older have significant hearing loss. The odds of hearing loss grow as you get older, doubling with every decade[1]. And hearing loss has been associated with cognitive decline and poorer physical function, including an increased risk of falls.  

Up until last year, the elderly who suffered from hearing loss had to go through several steps to get a hearing aid, even if one’s hearing loss was relatively mild. But in late 2022, the Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of basic hearing aids for those with mild or moderate hearing loss. This allows seniors to purchase the hearing aids they need without a prescription.

The Lowdown on Hearing Loss

For most older adults, hearing loss is progressive. It often begins with trouble hearing soft-spoken people or having to turn up the volume on the television or radio higher than you used to. That’s considered mild hearing loss. Hearing loss moves to moderate or severe when it becomes difficult to hear someone speaking at a typical volume around you. And when you can’t hear even loud sounds around you, that’s profound hearing loss.

The progression can usually be blamed on advancing age. But there are other risk factors that can make you more likely to suffer from hearing loss, such as gender – hearing loss tends to be more of a problem for men than women – and ethnicity or race. For instance, those who are Black tend to suffer less hearing loss than others, while those who are Hispanic tend to be at higher risk[2].

Hearing loss can have effects that go far beyond what you can hear. Hearing loss can make you feel isolated from others, and thus increase your risk for anxiety and depression. It can lead to a sense of insecurity, which might make you less social – and that feeds into a vicious cycle of loneliness. It can reduce your quality of life and lead to serious health issues. For instance, those who have hearing loss have a higher risk of developing dementia[3].

Those who suffer from hearing loss are at a much greater risk of falls. According to UT Southwestern Medical Center, even mild hearing loss can increase your risk of falls by threefold. The more severe the hearing loss, the more likely falls become. Since almost everyone deals with hearing loss as they age, having a plan in place to protect yourself from falls is very important.

That means you should pay close attention to aging in place solutions that can potentially prevent falls at home, as well as being more careful when you are on the go. Having a medical alert pendant is a strong layer of protection that provides peace of mind – if you do fall down, you can access help immediately, which tends to produce the best health outcomes for seniors.

If you are suffering from hearing loss, getting a hearing aid to help you restore what you can is a good step toward better safety and security. Fortunately, affordable, over-the-counter hearing aids put this help within reach for those who once didn’t have the option of purchasing hearing aids due to high cost.

What the New Rule on Hearing Aids Means for You

The new rule from the FDA means that you can now purchase hearing aids from pharmacies, retail stores, and online. You don’t need a prescription to do so. Besides the obvious convenience this gives millions of seniors, it also makes hearing aids much more affordable.

The high cost of hearing aids – and what it takes to get a prescription – have long deterred many elderly adults who really needed them. In the past, individuals with hearing loss had to complete a hearing exam, get a prescription for a hearing aid from the doctor, visit an audiologist to get a basic hearing aid, and then have that hearing aid periodically adjusted for them. Each visit can be expensive, especially since many of these visits are with specialists.

Consumer Affairs estimates the average cost of a hearing aid between $1,000 and $4,000 per ear. Premium models can jump up to $6,000 per ear. In addition to the cost of the hearing aid itself, the tests that are required to get approved for the hearing aid can be lengthy and expensive. That could be why the use of hearing aids is especially low among those of low-income, women, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Even those who are on Medicare are not immune to the high cost and inconvenience, as only 13% of Medicare beneficiaries who have hearing troubles actually have a hearing aid[4]. Traditional Medicare only covers hearing exams in limited circumstances and doesn’t pay for hearing aids or the fitting services for them. Even those with Medicare Advantage plans that do cover hearing care can face high out of pocket costs for the hearing aids[5]. Most commercial healthcare insurance plans don’t cover hearing aids at all.

One of the best perks about over-the-counter hearing aids is the price. Expect these over-the-counter versions to cost anywhere between $200 and $3,000 – a price that is likely to fit into most budgets[6].

Choosing the Best Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

Though you don’t have to worry about going to an audiologist or any other specialist to get hearing aids for mild hearing loss (which do not require a prescription), you should pay attention to some key points about the over-the-counter hearing aids that can affect your purchasing experience and use. Keep these tips in mind[7]:

·         Choose the setup that’s right for you. Some hearing aids will require a smartphone to adjust and operate. Some might have the controls directly on the device. If you are tech-savvy, a smartphone-compatible option is great. If not, you might want a simpler version. Consider your comfort level and how you feel about the learning curve.

·         Get a good return policy. The return policy will be printed clearly on the package. Since it can take several weeks for your brain to adjust to the sounds you can hear with the hearing aid, look for a return policy of at least 30 days – more if possible. This ensures that if your hearing aid isn’t right for you, you have the option to return it and get a different one.

·         Choose your battery. Some devices use rechargeable batteries. That means you take the hearing aids out every night and charge them while you sleep. Some older versions will have replaceable batteries. While newer devices with rechargeable batteries might be less hassle, sometimes the older style is best for your hearing needs.

·         Look for strong customer support. If you have a problem with your hearing aid, you want to be certain that you can get the support you need right away. Good customer service that is available over the phone and around the clock can be your best bet. You might also want to look for customer support that is available through other routes, such as email or text.

·         Do your research. Before you choose the hearing aid that’s right for you, it pays to look at the different types and read what others have experienced. The National Council on Aging Advisor offers a wealth of advice on over-the-counter hearing aids.

When you wear hearing aids, you can cut your risk of falls by 13% over the span of three years, according to Healthy Hearing. But when you’re not wearing them, it’s important to be prepared for any balance issues that might arise. It’s a good idea to wear a medical alert system with fall detection. This senior life-saving alert can reach out to an emergency monitoring center immediately upon detecting a fall, which can get assistance to you quickly even if you can’t press the button.

When You Need to Get a Prescription

While an over-the-counter hearing aid is a great thing for those who have mild to moderate hearing loss, those who are edging into more serious hearing loss will need something more than over-the-counter aids.

But what if you’re not sure how bad your hearing loss is?

Speak to your doctor about hearing loss at your next appointment. You might be able to do a simple in-office hearing test that will help determine what sound frequencies you can hear. If you don’t want to wait for your doctor’s appointment, you can get a general idea of the hearing loss you might be suffering by using apps created for the purpose. Try out SonicCloud or MimiHealth to get started.

What if the test tells you what you don’t want to hear? You’re not alone. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 25% of those aged 55 to 74 have disabling hearing loss; that number jumps to 50% for those aged 75 and older. So it’s entirely possible that your hearing loss has gone beyond what over-the-counter hearing aids can help.

Profound hearing loss will always require a careful examination by an audiologist and hearing aids that are more powerful than what you can get without a prescription.

No matter your level of hearing loss, a medical alert device for seniors is an excellent idea. A medical alert watch or pendant can provide peace of mind in your golden years and help maintain your health.