If you or a loved one uses hearing aids, you know that these devices can make a huge difference in your daily life. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, not everyone who has hearing loss wears hearing aids. A new study has found some changes in the percentage of Americans who use hearing aids, and it’s a case of good news and bad news.
The study, which was published in the medical journal JAMA: Internal Medicine in December 2020, tracked hearing aid use among older American adults from 2011 to 2018. The overarching good news that was uncovered in this research is that hearing aid use among older American adults is increasing. Between 2011 and 2018, hearing aid use among a representative sample of American adults over the age of 70 increased from 15 percent to 18.5 percent.
While it is great news that overall hearing aid use is increasing, there was bad news as well. Hearing aid use did not increase as dramatically for older Black Americans—only a +0.8 percent change in seven years. Furthermore, hearing aid use did not increase at all among older adults living at less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. In fact, hearing aid ownership actually dropped during this period from 12.4 percent to 10.8 percent. While this study did not look particularly at hearing aid use among older Hispanic Americans, other studies have found a similar disparity in hearing care.
There are several possible reasons for the disparity among minorities and lower-income adults. Systemic problems in healthcare lead to fewer minorities and low-income individuals having access to the care they need, including audiology and hearing loss services. When they do receive care, it is often delayed.
Even if these individuals have Medicaid or Medicare, they may not have access to the hearing healthcare they need. Medicaid hearing care depends on each state’s guidelines, while Medicare only partly covers hearing care. For many people in these minority and low-income groups, preventive care is limited or nonexistent. Hearing loss may go undiagnosed, and treatment may be out of reach due to cost and access. Stigma may also play a role among the percentage of the population who have hearing loss but do not use hearing aids.
For those with hearing loss (whether or not it has been diagnosed) who do not use hearing aids, the consequences can extend far beyond simply not being able to hear as well. Research has shown that untreated hearing loss is linked to an increased risk of depression, social isolation, anxiety, falls, dementia, and auditory processing problems. Because of the hearing loss treatment gap among minorities, experts expect dementia rates to increase disproportionately in minorities in the coming years.
What can be done to remedy this situation? First, be sure to have your hearing tested and follow your hearing specialist’s recommendations for treatment, including using hearing aids. If you have a loved one who you suspect may have untreated hearing loss, encourage them to have their hearing tested as well. Second, you can be part of ending the stigma surrounding hearing aid use. Never make fun of someone for using hearing aids or having a hearing loss. Instead, offer support and encouragement for seeking treatment.
Researchers are optimistic that a federal law passed in 2017 (that may go into effect in 2021) may help. This federal law makes hearing aids available over-the-counter, which could help many Americans gain access to hearing aids.
To learn more about hearing aid use in the United States or to schedule your appointment with our hearing specialist, we invite you to contact our practice today. We are here to assist you.