WASHINGTON—Treating hearing loss shouldn’t be such a pricey hassle. That’s the message from a prestigious government advisory group that’s calling on Medicare and other agencies to find ways to make better hearing more affordable and accessible for millions of older Americans.
One proposal: Allow over-the-counter sales of simple devices for mild hearing problems as an alternative to full hearing aids—much like consumers with vision problems today choose between drugstore reading glasses or prescription bifocals.
The report says action is important because hearing loss isn’t just a struggle for individuals but a growing public health problem, putting untreated seniors at extra risk of social isolation, depression, even dementia.
My neighbor, Garrett Whitley, sometimes talks about his role in the war when I visit him at the care facility where he’s spent the past few months.
He’s 88 and doesn’t walk so well anymore.
As a very young man, almost as young as some of his great-grandchildren, he served on the USS De Grasse in the Pacific.
The De Grasse was a cargo/troop transport ship that saw its share of action during the last 18 months of the war against Japan.
He gets very emotional when he recalls the horror of seeing a Japanese fighter plane diving into a nearby ship, killing dozens of sailors.
“That could have been us,” he says.
He’s also grateful President Harry Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, forcing Japan’s surrender. Otherwise, he would have been part of the invasion. Military planners thought such an operation could have cost a million American lives.
My conversations with Garrett are somewhat one-sided because he’s stone-deaf. Not that there’s much he needs to hear from me, but when I want to ask him a question, I have to write it down.
Life can be difficult for the hearing impaired, and is often accompanied by isolation and increased social anxiety. Even though hearing loss is a common problem with many available treatment options, most people let it go for more than 10 years before seeking a hearing aid, according to a Health Technology Assessment out of the United Kingdom in 2007.
"Hearing loss is invisible and insidious. I don't think people really think about that," says audiologist Deborah Berndtson, spokeswoman for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. According to ASHA, about 17 percent of Americans report partial hearing loss, but only 1 in 5 seeks help for it.
A hearing problem, whether you know about it or not, can often lead to unintended consequences, Berndtson says. Professionals in the workforce who don't treat hearing loss "will often suffer financially. They won't get that raise or promotion because they're not hearing well," she says. Whether the perception is that they don't understand what's going on or that they don't address their communication strategies, "people will see that. They miss out."