Hearing Aids: You haven't heard anything yet

Originally Posted September 30, 2018.

Meet Dick Pogue, a Cleveland lawyer. He is 91 years old, he goes to the office six days a week, and is the father of "Sunday Morning" contributions and Yahoo Finance technical critic David Pogue. He does not make many concessions for aging. Just about the only thing David has noticed is that he uses a hearing aid.

David asked, "Under what circumstances do you use them? Movies?"

"I use them on movies? Yes."

"And watching TV?"

"I use them watching TV."

"Talking to mom?"

"When I listen to her!" Dick laughed.

Most people with hearing loss get it by getting older. Two out of three people over 70 have trouble hearing. But what is really surprising is how many of them who do not get hearing aids.

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"On average, about 20% of adults with hearing loss use a hearing aid," said Frank Lin, an ear surgeon and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. His research shows that hearing loss is associated with a higher risk of hospitalization, depression and especially dementia.

So why aren't more people seeking treatment?

First, the price: "The average cost of getting a pair of hearing aids in the United States is about $ 4,700, which is remarkable, isn't it?" Dr. Lin said. "Because it basically means for the average American, then, that this could be their third-largest material purchase in a lifetime after a house and a car. So it's incredibly expensive."

What's more, most insurance companies do not cover hearing aids. And not Medicare, a major insurance company for all older adults.

But costs are just one obstacle. Some people are also embarrassed to use a hearing aid. (Many people are unaware of how much smaller hearing aids have become over the course of decades.)

And some people are robbed of the trouble of getting them . In the United States, you cannot currently obtain hearing aids without testing and consultation with a physician or audiologist.

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David Pogue has the hearing tested.

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Today, most of the world's hearing aids are made by six companies. Only one is headquartered in the United States, and that's Starkey, near Minneapolis.

Starkey's founder and CEO, Bill Austin, jokes: "I've been in everyone's ears!"

Like who? "Ford, Reagan, Clinton." And a pope too.

While Pogue doesn't actually need a hearing aid (yet), Starkey's team treated him to a pope-worthy fitting experience.

First, a cleaning. "You have narrow ear canals," Pogue was told.

Then a hearing test. Then a casting session for hearing aids that exactly will fit his ears. It takes about five minutes to stiffen blue liquid plastic in his ear canal.

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Make a good impression of David Pog's ear canal.

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Technicians must fit all the electronics into a small shell that will disappear completely in your ear. Once inserted, it cannot be seen.

You can also get the type that slides over and behind the ear. They have room for many more features; You can listen to music from your phone or call. They even have different presets for different sound environments, such as crowded rooms.

Think it sounds fancy? You haven't heard anything yet.

Starkey's technology manager, Achin Bhowmik, met Pogue inside one of the company's echo-proof test chambers. He adds several sensors to his hearing aids. A new model can count up your steps like a FitBit. It can even notify loved ones if you fall.

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Chief technology officer Achin Bhowmik with David Pogue in one of Starkey's echo-proof testing chambers

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But probably a technology that most hearing loss people want now is just the ability to understand someone talking across the table from them at a restaurant. Why can't we lick it?

"I think we're close to cutting the problem," Bhownik said. "We're going to do that by discovering, Where do you look? Do you look at me? Do you look at the person over there? "

But even basic hearing aids cost an ear and a leg, and that's Therefore: Two-thirds of the price is all these medical services – testing, customization and follow-up, all in that price.

But Frank Lin was convinced that people with mild hearing loss do not need all that. They may be happy with something more generic that costs a tenth as much. So his team worked with Congress to succeed in a new bill that allows the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids, which means that by August 2020, companies will be able to sell hearing aids directly to consumers. "Companies like Bose, Samsung, Apple could all enter the market now," Lin said.

He says access to hearing aids will be improved and costs will come down.

When it comes to the big companies making hearing aids now, "You are aiming directly at their spreadsheet," Pogue noted.

"Yes and no," said Dr. Lin. "It's an industry and a profession and a practice that's been built up over the last few decades. And now we're disrupting the model. If we think hearing is so important to public health, that's how we need to promote fields." 19659004] The new law will create a new class of hearing aids that are much less adapted, but also much more affordable. They can be similar to these devices, called personal audio amplification products, or PSAPs.

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Personal audio enhancement (PSAP) products, such as SuperEar (left) and Bose & # 39; s Hearphones.

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These PSAPs are on the market today, but legally they cannot be called or marketed as hearing aids .

But when the new law starts, several of these PSAPs may be called, said Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Some of these over-the-counter devices also have some pretty cool features, such as the SuperEar, which has a microphone that clips onto your suit. It costs around $ 80.

Then it's the Bose Hearphones, for $ 500. "These have noise cancellation," Reed said. He said that in tests conducted in a controlled environment, devices that cost several hundred dollars improved speech understanding as well as hearing aids costing several thousand.

As you can probably guess, the large hearing aid companies say that they are not as good as their products. "At a restaurant or from backgrounds of noise, they just don't appear," said Chris McCormick, chief marketing officer at Starkey.

"So what happens when people are allowed to buy hearing aids without the audiologist's services?" Asked Pogue.

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Hearing aid user Dick Pogue.

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"Concerns are people trying to diagnose themselves, people trying to program themselves," McCormick replied. "The products have to be standardized. And the problem with that is that everyone's hearing is different."

Highlights: The world of hearing aids is improving dramatically, both on the expensive end and – thanks to the new law – over-the-counter.

In the meantime, if you're among the 80 percent who can use a hearing aid but haven't looked into it, well, we'll give the final word to David's father, Dick.

When asked if he could imagine life without hearing aids, he said, "Well, I wouldn't be able to work. I mean, I couldn't go to meetings, I couldn't hear people. It would just make me to isolate myself and be home and very rarely go out. It would be a dramatically different life.

"I don't like it!", he laughed.

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History produced by Dustin Stephens.

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