Millions of hard-of-hearing Americans don’t use hearing aids

By Ross Cushing, Au.D.

Do your friends and family complain that you can’t hear, and do you tell them that they need to stop mumbling? If so, it may be interesting for you to know that you’re not alone; twelve million Americans 55 and up have age-related hearing loss, yet a recent study revealed that, on average, people wait seven years to seek treatment. The question is: why do people wait so long?

Much of the time, people with hearing loss actually believe that other people are mumbling. They think their children or family members simply aren’t speaking loud enough or not enunciating. In truth, it is actually because hearing loss effects hearing very gradually and high pitch sounds are lost first. Because the process of hearing loss happens over a long period of time many people don’t acknowledge it until it’s really bad. Also, because most people lose high pitch sounds first, it causes them to perceive the "it’s not me, you’re just mumbling" syndrome.

Here’s a test. Do you have more trouble hearing women’s voices, whispers, consonant sounds of speech, and hearing in noisy situations? Do you complain that other people are speaking too fast or mumbling? Typically people with high pitch hearing loss report that they can hear people speaking, they just don’t catch all the words.

You may be interested to know that people with high-pitch hearing loss are often quite young. In fact, audiologists around the country have found 12 year old children with this type of hearing loss due to listening to excessively loud music. But even if you don’t listen to loud music, over time, loud noises plus genetic factors can begin to take their toll. Mowing the lawn, traffic noise, noisy restaurants and bars all can add up to a high pitch hearing loss. And because of the noisy world we live in, small cells in your inner ear, called haircells, often get damaged at a young age. These fragile cells are very interesting because they are located on a part of your ear that is much like a very small piano keyboard, and when they are damaged particular words in everyday speech begin to sound distorted.

Of course, there are other reasons people who need hearing aids don’t get them. People sometimes worry about how they look more than how well they listen. The good news here is that hearing aids have never been less noticeable–or more effective. "I actually feel smarter and younger since I got mine because I can pick up on all the details now," says Sandra Gregory, 58 of Baltimore.

The price of a hearing aids is yet another reason, and their worried that they won’t like them. Of course it all depends on what type you buy (and no, Medicare and most insurance companies won’t cover the costs). The newest high-tech digital models typically run from $2000 to $3,000 per ear. Old-fashioned analog models are usually cheaper–$1000 to $1,600 is normal–but the difference in sound quality is like the difference between a microphone and a bullhorn. Analog models simply make sounds louder. Digital models make sounds clearer and sharpen speech. Digital models also offer more flexibility, faster processing, and better hearing in noisy places–key reasons that they make up 80 percent of hearing aid sales. Best of all, prices for digital hearing aids are becoming more affordable. Digital hearing aids used to all be expensive. But now, you can purchase different levels of technology depending on your budget, which makes digital hearing accessible to almost everyone.