Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing
When you have untreated hearing loss, hearing aids can make all the difference in your quality of life, reducing your isolation and improving communication with loved ones. And, as research shows, wearing hearing aids is also good for your physical health.
Yet, hearing aids continue to be underused. Millions of Americans who could benefit from hearing aids never receive them, or wait for a very long time before finally buying them, statistics show. Cost, access, and stigma are common reasons people do not wear hearing aids.
Hearing aid use is increasing
That’s why, in a broad sense, it’s good news that hearing aids usage has gone up among older Americans, according to new data.
Specifically, between 2011 and 2018, hearing aid use increased from 15% to 18.5%, according to a nationally representative sample of adults older than 70. The data was published December 2020 in the medical journal JAMA: Internal Medicine.
This translate to a lot more older Americans reducing their isolation, improving their communication with loved ones and lowering the risk of health conditions linked to untreated hearing loss.
Hearing aid use not equal among socioeconomic groups
But there was a concerning trend when the researchers dug in to the data. Far fewer Black Americans reported an increase in owning and using hearing aids (a +.8% change in 7 years) compared with White Americans (a +4.3% change).
And when looking at income levels, hearing aid ownership actually dropped in the past few years—from 12.4% to 10.8%—among older adults living at less than 100% of the federal poverty level.
In other words, if you’re white or of higher income, you’re more likely to use hearing aids.
The study did not specifically examine hearing aid use among Hispanic older Americans, but separate studies have found a similar disparity when it comes to hearing care.
Why the treatment gap in hearing care?
This is a known treatment gap, but the new data set affirms this problem is persisting rather than improving, particularly among the poorest Americans.
Systemic problems in U.S. healthcare mean minorities and lower-income Americans have less access to a range of services, even if they have Medicare or Medicaid. (Hearing care is only partly covered by Medicare. Medicaid hearing care coverage tends to be better, but depends on your state’s laws.)
What it mostly comes down to, some experts say: The price of hearing aids puts them out of reach for many older Americans on a fixed budget.
“Too often, preventive care is limited or nonexistent, hearing loss is underdiagnosed, and access to treatment is delayed or out of reach,” said the authors of an editorial that accompanied a study examining hearing loss, dementia and heart disease among Hispanics.
A bright spot? A federal law passed in 2017 (that may go into effect in 2021) will mean that hearing aids will be available over-the-counter. This may help bring down costs and improve access for everyone.
Efforts to expand hearing aid use
Untreated hearing loss is linked to physical and mental health impacts, most notably dementia. And rates of dementia are expected to increase disproportionately among minorities in the U.S. in the next few decades.
Closing the gap in hearing care could be a pivotal way to stem this tide, particularly when caught early and addressed in mid-life, research indicates.
How to do so? A lot more work is needed, but pilot projects offer glimpses of hope. One example being Oyendo Bien (“Hearing Well”), a program in Arizona that partnered with local community members to help increase culturally relevant communication about hearing loss.
“The program’s 5 weekly group education sessions were facilitated by community health workers, who are culturally representative of the populations they serve and assist with navigating structural barriers in access to care,” explained University of Arizona associate professor Nicole Marrone, PhD, CCC-A, in the editorial mentioned above.
The project was successful and has received funding for expansion, leading to the newly created Hispanic Hearing Healthcare Access Coalition.
“Clinicians, scientists, scholars, and leaders must practice cultural humility to be responsive to community needs,” she added.
What can you do?
If you or a loved one has untreated hearing loss, the first step is to contact a hearing care provider in your area. They can walk you through the process, and if needed, recommend a hearing aid within your budget. They’ll likely want to start with a hearing test, which is often covered by Medicare or Medicaid. Learn more about insurance and financial assistance for hearing aids.