The Problem of Hearing Loss Is Finally Being Heard

Gael Hannan is a successful author and an editor and blogger for the website Earlier this year, she started off one of her blogs with the following observation: “Hearing loss is a goldmine of laughs, especially for those who don’t have it.” In conversation or in response to a question, a person with hearing loss will very often reply with something that comes straight out of left field. People with normal hearing will often laugh at such an odd response. The hearing-impaired person will often join in with them because, on the surface, some just come off as full-on funny. “But the hard-of-hearing person is always embarrassed, to varying degrees, at having made the mistake, although she or he may hide it or even laugh it off” Hannan points out.

Hannan makes this statement from lifelong firsthand knowledge. She grew up with a condition called bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. As a child, her hearing loss was in the mild range, and her parents were against the idea of attaching their child to a hearing device, making her vulnerable to the scorn of classmates. It would not be until the age of 20 that she would be prescribed her first hearing aids. By her 30s, her hearing loss had progressed into the severe to profound range. “They say that to live successfully with hearing loss, you must keep your sense of humor,” she writes. “That makes sense.”

She also admits that not every person is wired to be able to laugh at strange conversation situations resulting from being hard of hearing or deaf. More importantly, laughing it off also doesn’t acknowledge what being the subject of such laughter does to the person living with hearing loss, letting a teachable moment pass. “Hearing is how we connect with all our relationships on the job in our family life. And when that starts to break down, it interrupts everything,” says Barbara Kelly, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, in a recent PBS interview. Such encounters also create what Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health refers to as “brain strain.” Hearing loss can “make the brain work harder, forcing it to strain to hear and fill in the gaps,” writes Dr. Frank R. Lin, director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health and professor of otolaryngology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “That comes at the expense of other thinking and memory systems.”

“Even people with minimal hearing loss may exhibit increased stress due to difficulty communicating,” explains Angela Shoup, executive director of the Callier Center for Communication Disorders and a professor of speech, language and hearing at the University of Texas at Dallas, in a recent interview with Everyday Health. Stress can lead to depression, isolation, and other more serious medical consequences. Data from the National Health Interview Survey suggests that seniors who have hearing loss but don’t use hearing aids are “twice as likely to report frequent symptoms of depression than those who use the devices.”

More people in this country experience hearing loss, and the negative experiences that come with it, than you might imagine. Says a USA Today report, nearly 30 million adults have trouble hearing in the United States. According to a National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders survey, some reports have it closer to nearly 48 million Americans. While all those affected could benefit from hearing aids, many folks’ hearing loss goes either undiagnosed or untreated, per the NIDCD statistics. “Among adults with hearing loss, fewer than one-third of people 70 and older and fewer than one in six adults 20 to 69 years old get hearing aids,” according to the NIDCD.

The biggest obstacle, according to the NHIS study that was conducted this year, is cost. The study found that “one in four people with hearing difficulties do not use a hearing aid because of cost.”

Why all this noise about hearing loss, you might ask? As widely reported, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for over-the-counter hearing aid sales without a required doctor’s exam and prescription, expanding access and affordability potentially to millions of Americans. Reports Everyday Health, the FDA says that these hearing aids could be in stores as early as mid-October. Reports USA Today’s Ken Alltucker, the FDA estimates “the new class of devices would save consumers about $2,800 for a pair of hearing aids … Some hearing aids cost more than $5,000 between the price of the device and a professional fitting. Medicare covers a diagnostic test but does not pay for the device.”

There is an abundance of reporting available about the FDA ruling, if you are interested in more detail. With the space I have left, I’d like to focus on what I believe to be the great injustice perpetrated against millions of Americans that, in a large degree, led to the FDA action. For too many years, despite millions of Americans experiencing hearing loss, most insurers have stuck with policies that do not cover the cost of hearing aids or examinations and fittings, according to “If healthcare plans include hearing benefits, they are often limited, covering only a portion of hearing aid costs,” they write. “While the standard Medicare plan has some hearing benefits, it does not cover hearing aids or hearing tests.”

The Professional Hearing Center, an audiology clinic based in Kansas City, Missouri, explains in a recent post that, to most insurance companies, “hearing aids are considered an ‘elective’ procedure, much like liposuction or plastic surgery. Most of us could live with a little pouch on our stomach or thighs, but how many feel that any one of our 5 senses is less important or expendable?”

“Currently, insurance companies have 35 mandated benefits they are required to cover,” they go on to report. “Since hearing loss is a ‘likely risk’ — more than 50% of people over age 75 will have hearing loss — the companies feel there is too high of a possibility that a large number of people will make a claim, therefore increasing costs and reducing profit. Hearing loss is then considered uninsurable.”

It is hoped that the FDA action will change this dynamic. We’ll see.