Should You Buy OTC Hearing Aids?
Approximately one out of every eight Americans ages 12 and older has some form of hearing loss. That number increases to 25 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74, and to 50 percent from age 75 onward.
Hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars, which is why our primary care doctors in Delray Beach were pleased that last July President Biden signed an executive order encouraging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids without a prescription.
The FDA complied, and this month OTC hearing aids became available at Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, and Best Buy, as well as online.
But if you have a hearing problem, does that mean you should rush out and pick up a pair?
Hearing Loss Implications
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a person who is not able to hear as well as someone with normal hearing—that is, hearing thresholds of 20 dB or better in both ears—is said to have hearing loss.
Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, severe, or profound. “Hard of hearing” refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe, while those referred to as “deaf” means they have little or no hearing.
And the impact of unaddressed hearing loss can be severe.
“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” Johns Hopkins hearing expert Frank Lin, M.D. Ph.D. told Health Home. In a study, he and his colleagues found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled the risk, and those with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.
It can also contribute to falls, he said, because as you walk, your ears pick up subtle cues that help with balance.
At least one study even correlates hearing loss with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Then, of course, there’s the social isolation and frustration on the part of those who have difficulty hearing normal conversations.
Which is why advocates were so happy with this new ruling.
“Giving people with mild to moderate hearing loss access to affordable hearing aids is an important step to ensure their health and quality of life,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president and chief advocacy and enforcement officer. AARP was one of the organizations behind the push for the new ruling.
“For many Americans, the high cost of prescription hearing aids puts them out of reach, increasing their risk of isolation, depression, and other health issues,” she said.
Until now, hearing aids have been available only with a prescription. This has meant that patients paid not only for the devices themselves—which can run as high as $6,000 per ear—but also for the required medical evaluation with an audiologist, boosting the cost several thousand dollars higher.
Savings, but Still Costly
Few private medical plans cover hearing aids, and neither does Medicare or Medicaid. Even Medicare Advantage plans cover only a portion of the cost.
And although many of the OTC devices can run several hundred to over a thousand dollars, consumers will still save the cost of seeing a professional to obtain a prescription. In addition, as more manufacturers enter the market, the competition is expected to eventually lower the cost over time.
Still, they’re far from cheap. Walgreens is selling OTC hearing aids for $799 a pair, compared to the average cost of between $2,000-$8,000, the company said. Prices at Walmart range from $199 to $999, depending on the device. Best Buy’s online prices range from $200-$3,000.
Nevertheless, the FDA estimates that OTC hearing aids could save consumers about $1,438 each, because of the savings from not needing a prescription.
Are They Right for You?
There are some reasons for hearing loss that you should check with us before buying OTC hearing aids.
- a full or plugged feeling in an ear
- fluid, pus, or blood coming from an affected ear
- sudden or fluctuating hearing loss
- a history of excessive ear wax or suspicion that something is in your ear canal
- better hearing in one ear or the other
- ringing or buzzing in both ears (tinnitus)
- constant pain in one or both ears
- vertigo (extreme dizziness) or dizziness
These can be signs of a serious medical condition.
What to Look for
Because the prices vary so widely, here are some things to consider before buying OTC hearing aids.
First, know the difference between an OTC hearing aid and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), which amplify all sounds equally, as opposed to OTC hearing aids, which are able to distinguish and amplify certain sounds.
Second, be sure to check the store’s or manufacturer’s return policy on the packaging, required by the FDA, and what kind of customer support you’ll receive after you buy. You don’t want to be stuck with a costly hearing aid that doesn’t work for you but you can’t return.
On the other hand, remember that, unlike with glasses, it may take a few weeks for your brain to learn to correctly process the sounds you’re now able to hear. So don’t expect instant results, but do return them if necessary.
Finally, find out whether the device uses replaceable or rechargeable batteries, and decide which you prefer.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) has a complete buyer’s guide to OTC hearing aids available here. (https://www.ncoa.org/adviser/hearing-aids/hearing-aid-buyers-guide/)