Many of us probably lump hearing aids with devices reserved for the very elderly or those born with hearing impairment, but this stereotype is far from correct. According to a new study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Health, some 23 million Americans experiencing hearing loss could benefit from the use of a hearing aid. Additionally, an estimated 26.7 million Americans age 50 and older have some hearing loss, but only one in seven uses a hearing aid.
This is the first study attempting to accurately estimate the number of Americans with untreated hearing loss, as previous estimates had relied on industry market data. The study was published in the Feb. 13 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Researchers used data from the 1999-2006 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. During those cycles, participants answered questions about whether they used a hearing aid and had their hearing tested. Hearing aid use rose with age, ranging from 4.3 percent in individuals 50 to 59 years old to 22.1 percent in those 80 and older.
Why the gap?
Health insurance often does not cover the cost of hearing aids, so cost could be one of the reasons people don't get them, as well as the difficulty in integrating them into daily life, suggested the study's senior author Dr. Frank Lin, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a university press release. But another major reason, he says, is that people often consider hearing loss inevitable and of minor concern.
"There's still a perception among the public and many medical professionals that hearing loss is an inconsequential part of the aging process and you can't do anything about it. We want to turn that idea around," wrote Dr. Lin.
Not a minor concern
Hearing aids don't just help with hearing. Untreated hearing loss may also put you at risk for other health woes as you age, found other recent Johns Hopkins studies.
Seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing, found researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging. That long-term study of 639 people found that, compared to individuals with normal hearing, those with mild, moderate, and severe hearing loss had twofold, threefold, and fivefold, respectively, the risk of developing dementia over time.
Another Johns Hopkins/NIA study determined a connection between hearing loss and a risk of falling. For that study, published in February 27 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine, participants ages 40 to 69 had their hearing tested and answered questions about whether they had fallen during a previous one-year period. Researchers found that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss, classified as mild, were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold, even when accounting for other factors linked with falling, including age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and motor function.
Paying for hearing aids
For those who can't afford to pay for hearing aids, there are several good resources out there. Consumer Reports ran a list of resources in its July 2009 issue and the AARP Bulletin recently ran a piece on Paying for Your Hearing Aid.