The Downside to Over the Counter Hearing Aids

People will wait for an average of 10 years from the onset of hearing loss to the day they decide to do something about hearing loss. That is a very long time to allow a health condition to go unaddressed. We encourage every person with hearing loss to address the problem as soon as possible. We strongly believe that every hearing problem needs a solution. However, we don’t take a one size fits all approach. Not every solution is right for every problem. And unfortunately, for people who have mild hearing loss and even for those with moderate hearing loss, the solution to their hearing problem may not be over-the-counter hearing aids. 

Hearing loss tends to begin as a mild, high-frequency hearing loss. Individuals with mild hearing loss don’t have difficulty hearing in one-on-one, quiet settings. Maybe the individual isn’t hearing 100% of what’s said, but they hear enough to piece together the message the speaker delivers.  

The hearing problem becomes apparent in the presence of noise. In a noisy listening situation, an individual without hearing loss no longer gets 100% of the message because of the noise. However, they’re still getting enough of the signal to piece together what’s said. The individual with hearing loss only hears 50% – 60% of the message. That is not enough to understand what’s said. In this setting, the speaker will need to provide frequent repetitions, usually accompanied by a need to increase the volume of their voice to overcome the noise.  

Because they don’t perceive a problem in quiet, the person with hearing loss will tend to blame the environment or the speaker for their inability to “hear.” This cycle may continue until the loss declines further, impacting how well they hear in quiet. It is usually at that point that they decide they might have a problem and are willing to come in and see us. 

Is Hearing Loss Just a Hearing Problem?

From Johns Hopkins Medicine

Hearing loss is frustrating for those who have it and for their loved ones. But recent research from Johns Hopkins reveals that it also is linked with walking problems, falls and even dementia.

In a study that tracked 639 adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins expert Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.

‘Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,’ Lin says. ‘Hearing loss also contributes to social isolation. You may not want to be with people as much, and when you are you may not engage in conversation as much. These factors may contribute to dementia.’

As you walk, your ears pick up subtle cues that help with balance. Hearing loss mutes these important signals, Lin notes. ‘It also makes your brain work harder just to process sound. This subconscious multitasking may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely.’”

If you have hearing loss, the sooner you do something about the problem, the better. But like any problem that requires a solution, it requires the right solution.

The Problem with Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

The introduction of “over-the-counter” or OTC hearing aids was a well-intentioned but ill-conceived idea. 

OTC hearing aids are advertised as suitable for individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss who are just beginning to experience hearing problems. The individuals described above. They are typically younger, still working, and have larger households. They are surrounded by noise and a lot of noise. Personal sound amplification products (PSAP) have been marketed for years. Many of these companies plan to market these PSAPs or products similar to these as OTC hearing aids.  These products were designed to be cost-effective. They were not designed to function well in noise. A study published in the Journal of Audiology & Otology found that “in the quiet environment, speech intelligibility was significantly improved after wearing a PSAP compared to the unaided condition.  However, there was no significant improvement of speech intelligibility in a noisy environment when wearing the PSAP.”

The support of a hearing healthcare professional during this process also appears to be a crucial part of the process. Katherine Bouton, a journalist for AARP, reported on a study done at Indiana University. The study found, given the same set of hearing aids, hearing aids that are more sophisticated than a typical OTC hearing aid, “the OTC group was less satisfied with the hearing aids and less likely to purchase them after the trial.” The dynamics of hearing loss are complex. It is not as simple as shopping for readers when our vision begins to change. And unfortunately, it’s that concept upon which OTC hearing aids were introduced.

The concern about OTC hearing aids is this; if they are ineffective at solving the problems faced by the patients they are marketed to and are provided without the guidance of a trained and licensed hearing healthcare professional, what will be the result of this failure? 

In other words, if these patients try OTC hearing aids and because they don’t work well in noise, the very place they need them to work, will they put off trying hearing aids again for longer than ten years? If they do, they stand a good chance of increasing the risk of falls and cognitive decline. In addition, their untreated hearing loss will undoubtedly impact their performance on the job and their relationships with friends and family.

If you have hearing loss, it is imperative to find a solution as soon as possible. Equally important is finding the right solution. Contact our office today so we can help you find the right solution to your problem.