THURSDAY, July 5, 2018 -- A hearing aid can set you back as much as $7,000, and that's the main reason more Americans don't use one, a new study finds.
The report also suggests that many people are too embarrassed to wear one.
No matter the reason, it's troubling, one study author said, because poor hearing can hurt people in many ways.
"Unaddressed hearing loss can affect one's psychosocial, physical and cognitive [brain] health," said study lead author Dr. Michael McKee.
"Furthermore, hearing loss is tied with unemployment and reduced incomes, so by not addressing the hearing loss, it is possible that those who are unable to acquire hearing aids will be made even worse off down the road," he added.
McKee is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan.
Only about one-third of hearing-impaired Americans over age 55 use a hearing aid, the study found. Use of the devices is even less common among older blacks, Hispanics, people with less education and the poor.
"In many cases, these groups were less than half as likely to use hearing aids compared to those with higher wealth, education and whites," McKee noted.
Hearing aids cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 out of pocket. Most insurance -- including Medicare -- doesn't cover them.
By their 50s, roughly three in 10 Americans experience hearing loss. That rises to 45 percent among those in their 60s; nearly 70 percent among 70-year-olds; and nearly 90 percent among octogenarians.
To track hearing aid use, the researchers reviewed data from a survey of 35,000 men and women aged 55 and older, all of whom reported hearing loss. In-depth interviews were conducted with 21 patients.
The interviews found that cost, lack of insurance coverage, vanity or stigma were common reasons for not using hearing aids. The participants also cited a lack of attention to hearing loss by their primary care provider and worries about finding a trustworthy audiologist.
Just 15 percent of respondents in their late 50s said they used hearing aids, compared with 57 percent among those in their late 80s, the findings showed.
Hearing aid use also differed by race, the investigators found. About 40 percent of white patients used hearing aids, compared with about 18 percent of black patients, and 21 percent of Hispanics.
Education gaps were evident, too. Over 45 percent of study participants who had gone to college wore a hearing aid, compared to less than 29 percent of respondents who hadn't finished high school.
Among the poorest respondents, about one-quarter wore a hearing aid compared to nearly half of the highest earners.
That said, hearing-impaired military veterans between 55 and 64 were twice as likely to use a hearing aid than their non-vet peers. Why? Because veterans benefits often cover the cost.
Still, Jackie Clark, president of the American Academy of Audiology, said that although price is an obstacle, it's not the only problem.
"The reason people are averse to hearing aids is pretty complex, multi-dimensional and culturally influenced," Clark said.
Moreover, the science of hearing is still relatively young, she noted. It took off only after World War II, when many veterans returned with hearing harmed by exposure to exploding bombs.
"I often like to remind people that it took over 100 years for the adoption of eye glasses to attain good vision," Clark said.
It was only once good eyesight became an indispensable feature of modern life that "the glasses industry went from almost non-existent to almost complete uptake," Clark added.
So what can be done to encourage broader acceptance of hearing aids?
Besides ensuring that insurance covers their cost, McKee said people need to be reminded about how helpful hearing aids could be.
"Public announcement programs highlighting the benefits of addressing your hearing loss could help," he said. "We need to engage celebrities who wear hearing aids to show that having one does not make one appear uncool or less able."
McKee and his colleagues reported their findings in a recent issue of The Gerontologist.
There's more on seniors and hearing loss at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
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