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High-Tech Hearing Aids: Hearing Is Believing

Improved Performance, Comfort & Appearance

Finding a quality hearing aid at a reasonable price has become increasingly common because of changes in the marketplace. Nonetheless, as hearing-aid technologies change, consumers still must navigate a maze of confusion.

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Most people who sought hearing aids over the years visited their local audiologist. The audiologist tested their hearing and sold them a device for typically thousands of dollars per pair—a price that included services, such as follow-up visits for adjustments.

However, a convergence of factors today—particularly an increase in online availability—promises to disrupt the traditional model of selling hearing aids. The result for consumers likely will be increased access to affordable quality hearing aids but also more confusion over which purchasing path is best to take and which devices are best suited for them.

In recent years, new technologies have improved the performance, comfort and appearance of hearing aids. For example, so-called invisible-in-ear-canal (IIC) hearing aids are peanut-size devices that are designed to fit so they can’t be seen. In addition, Internet entrepreneurs built hearing devices that use the same basic components of hearing aids (microphone, amplifier and speaker) and are sold for a fraction of what you’d pay for a hearing aid at an audiologist’s office.

Nonetheless, one element that hasn’t changed is that hearing aids—no matter the cost—typically are an out-of-pocket expense. Although Food and Drug Administration regulates hearing aids as medical devices, neither Medicare nor most health-insurance companies cover the cost. That lack of insurance coverage is a big deal as baby boomers account for an increasingly large chunk of the senior-citizen population, which is the primary market for hearing aids.

Thirty-six million people in the United States have hearing loss, and that number is expected to double by 2030. Yet, only about 1 in 7 Americans age 50 and older who have hearing loss wear hearing aids. Cost is a major obstacle, experts say.

“The current system is not working,” says Brenda Battat, who is executive director of Hearing Loss Association of America, which is a consumer advocacy group. “It’s too laborious, it’s too complicated and it’s too expensive.”

PATH OF PURCHASE. The emergence of less expensive options to buy hearing aids creates a dilemma for consumers. You can pay as much as 10 times more to purchase a hearing aid from an audiologist than one that you can buy online, but you can’t shop around for the best price on a particular model the way that you can for, say, a vehicle. The reason: The hearing aids that are sold by audiologists, who typically carry only three or four brands, aren’t the same as the models that are sold online and elsewhere, experts tell Consumers Digest.

Types of Hearing Aids

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In general, more-expensive hearing aids generally have Bluetooth wireless technology, which allows the hearing aid to connect to smartphones and to other electronic devices, so you can listen to music or other content. More-expensive hearing aids also have multiple channels, which can be programmed by a computer to account for different levels of hearing loss along the frequency spectrum. In other words, certain frequencies can be amplified more than on other models based on the results of an individual’s hearing test.

Deborah Carlson, who is the president of American Academy of Audiology (AAA), says audiologists typically can’t adjust models that are purchased online or at mass-market retailers, because audiologists don’t have the software that’s necessary to make the proper adjustments via a computer. For example, she says one of her longtime patients decided to buy hearing aids at a Costco store instead of from her, so he could save about 50 percent on the purchase cost. He purchased the same brand of hearing aids that she sells, but when he returned to have her adjust the device, Carlson couldn’t help him, because she never had seen that particular model and didn’t have the right software, she says.

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