hearing loss increasing

If you fear you’re going to spend your “golden years” with a hand cupped behind your ear, saying “Eh, what?” you may not be all that wrong.

And some younger people may be joining you.

According to a new study, the number of adults in the United States 20 years of age or older with hearing loss is expected to nearly double in coming decades.

Put another way, that means the percentage of adults who have hearing loss will rise from 15 percent to 22 percent.

That’s a jump from 44 million in 2020 to 73 million in 2060.

Read more: Get the facts on hearing impairment »

Demand for hearing services

Adele Goman, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health in Maryland, is one of several scientists who analyzed audiometric data from the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

That’s a biannual epidemiologic survey of a representative sample of the U.S. noninstitutionalized population.

“Last year we estimated how common hearing loss is across different age groups and how many adults have hearing loss today,” Goman told Healthline.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and by the Eleanor Schwartz Charitable Foundation.

[Hearing loss predictions are] important to know in order to appropriately plan for future hearing healthcare needs.
Adele Goman, Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health

“We did not know the number of adults that are expected to have hearing loss in the coming decades,” Goman said. “This is important to know in order to appropriately plan for future hearing healthcare needs.” 

Since the number of adults with hearing loss is expected to increase in the coming years, demand for audiologic services will increase as well.

More than two-thirds of adults 70 years or older in the United States will have clinically meaningful hearing loss.

“Audiologic healthcare services encompass a range of options including aural rehabilitation, hearing aid fitting, hearing screenings and referrals, hearing aid testing, and novel approaches to hearing healthcare,” said Goman.

Read more: Age-related hearing loss »

A public health issue

The study concludes that hearing loss is a major public health issue independently associated with higher healthcare costs, accelerated cognitive decline, and poorer physical functioning.

That’s not any surprise to Barbara Kelley, whose position as executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America puts her on the front lines.

“We’ve always known hearing loss is a primary health concern,” Kelley told Healthline. “When you have one health problem, you probably have others.”

She noted that people with hearing loss have more falls than those not affected.

“There may be a link to dementia as well,” she said.

It is thought that some aspects of hearing loss are due to aging, she said. “But we don’t know if that’s due to exposure to too much noise. It may be a co-morbidity factor.”

Remember all those warnings about loud rock music that went in one ear and out the other, so to speak?

If you leave a concert with ringing in your ears, for example, that’s a sign that some cells in your ear have died, Kelley said. And they stay dead forever.

Read more: Is technology causing a lifetime of pain for millennials? »

Changes are afoot

Today, a hearing aid might cost $4,000 and it’s not covered by most insurance carriers.

Kelley said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suggested a new category of over-the-counter devices. It would be a first step into amplification devices.

One new device uses “smart buds” controlled by your smart phone. Kelly said the high-tech format might be popular with aging baby boomers who say, “I don’t need a hearing aid. That’s for old people.”

“The hearing aid market has a low volume, high cost model,” Kelley said.

But that could change.

Kelley cited a bill introduced in November by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) and Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016.

We’d love to see Medicare cover hearing loss.
Barbara Kelly, Hearing Loss Association of America

The bipartisan legislation would make certain types of hearing aids available without prescription as well as remove some of the requirements that make it difficult for consumers to get the products they need.

“We’d love to see Medicare cover hearing loss,” Kelley said.

When Medicare was established in 1965 its intent was to focus on life-threatening issues. Hearing loss, vision, and dental care were specifically excluded and it would take an act of Congress to reverse that.

“That’s a hard nut to crack,” Kelley admitted.

Also in the works: On Apr. 18, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will host a daylong workshop to examine competition, innovation, and consumer protection issues raised by hearing health and technology, especially hearing aids.

Health and science authorities observe that many more consumers could benefit from hearing healthcare devices and related services, but cannot afford them.

For example, a 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine estimates that “67 to 86 percent of adults who may benefit from hearing aids do not use them.”

The FTC workshop will bring together researchers, healthcare providers, industry representatives, consumer representatives, policymakers, and others to examine ways in which enhanced competition and innovation might increase the availability and adoption of hearing aids by those consumers who need them.

The workshop will be free and open to the public.

So listen up.