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Millions of Americans with mild or moderate hearing loss can now purchase hearing aids over the counter from major retailers like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Best Buy thanks to new Food and Drug Administration regulations implemented on Oct. 17. 

“The vast numbers of people in the United States who actually have hearing loss that is not managed, that is not treated — that is a significant public health concern,” said Dr. Ishara Ramkissoon, an audiology professor and researcher at Gallaudet University. “When you have hearing difficulty, it impacts your communication. And as humans, communication defines us.” 

Hearing aids range widely in cost, but over-the-counter options are likely to include significantly cheaper choices. Some retailers listed prices as low as $200; prescription hearing aids typically cost between $2,000 to $7,000, according to healthcare company GoodRx. 

“​​The price range is huge,” said Reem Mulla, another professor and researcher in Gallaudet’s audiology department. “The higher price over the counter devices might advertise as having more adjustability, more fine-tuning that the user could do to fit themselves, or maybe a better return policy, or less visibility.” 

Experts hope that the lower costs and more direct access will increase hearing aid use among the approximately 30 million American adults with hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss can have serious emotional and cognitive health impacts, such as social isolation and increased risk of dementia. 

“When the majority of people experience a vision loss, they very quickly go and seek remediation services for that, but when an individual experiences hearing difficulty, they wait and wait and wait,” Ramkissoon said. 

Studies have found people wait an average of 10 years after first suspecting they might have hearing issues before seeking out treatment. In addition to cost, many people cite stigma around hearing loss as a reason to procrastinate. 

Julia Wallace, who serves on the DC Area Black Deaf Advocates’ board of directors, said that this stigma can also impact people with severe hearing loss or deafness, who can’t put off treatment. 

“In the Deaf Black community, it’s almost like, you know, some people say, ‘Oh, I have deaf family, but, you know, we don’t really talk about it,’” she said. “It’s more hidden.”

Hearing aid accessibility especially effects Black seniors

The National Institutes of Health estimates one in three Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 has some form of hearing loss. That number increases to nearly 50% in people older than 75. More than half of the District’s senior population is Black; there are almost 67,000 Black D.C. residents over the age of 60. 

Age-related hearing loss impacts Americans about equally across races and ethnicities, Ramkissoon said. But access to care is not equal. In a 2020 study of Americans over the age of 70, Black seniors reported a much smaller increase in hearing aid ownership than White seniors over a seven-year period. Among older adults living below the federal poverty level, hearing aid use actually decreased during that time frame.

“It comes back to the age-old challenges where certain communities have less ability to access health care services, they have fewer provisions on insurance or they may not have health insurance,” Ramkissoon said. “I am hopeful that having an over the counter hearing device category will improve accessibility for all.”

Still, both Ramkissoon and Mulla expressed concerns that consumers opting for over the counter options may miss out on the personalized care that audiologists provide. Though it’s not required, they recommend that people get a professional hearing test done even if they plan to buy the hearing aid separately instead of from the audiologist. 

Over the counter hearing aids will require users to adjust the devices themselves, a service that audiologists provide to patients getting prescription hearing aids. The process involves someone tech savvy, and it can sometimes take a few months to get used to the new hearing aids.  

“I am a little bit worried that a lot of people will end up going and spending the money and then ending up with poorly fitting devices that they just shove in the drawer and don’t use again,” Ramkissoon said. 

Consumer education will be crucial in helping people decide if over the counter or prescription hearing aids will be a better choice for their specific hearing loss. Only adults with mild or moderate hearing loss are eligible for the over the counter devices. 

“The OTCs are available now, and they’re great for a certain population,” Mulla said. “But make sure that you have your hearing tested before you get them, and make sure you follow the criteria on the box.”

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