The FDA approved over the counter (OTC) hearing aids that started rolling out this fall are a real game changer for the roughly 48 million Americans with hearing loss. Adults with impaired hearing can now walk in and buy hearing aids at a pharmacy, big box chain, consumer electronics store or online, without a prescription and without consulting an audiologist.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved this new class of hearing aids to lower prices and improve their availability.
About a third of people ages 65 to 74 and half of those over age 75 have hearing loss severe enough to affect their daily life. Yet about 80 percent of people who would benefit from hearing aids don’t wear them, according to the National Institutes of Health, primarily because of the hefty price tag.
Traditional hearing aids ordered through an audiologist cost anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 a pair and are not covered by most private insurers and traditional Medicare. The new OTC hearing aids range from $200 up to $3,000.
Who Should Get Them?
OTC hearing aids are specifically designed for adults (18 and older) who have mild to moderate hearing loss. You don’t need a hearing exam or prescription to buy them, and they are designed so you can fit and tune them yourself.
Do you have mild to moderate hearing loss? The specific signs are having trouble hearing or understanding conversations, especially in noisier environments, over the phone, or if you can’t see who’s talking. Or, if you need a higher volume of TV, radio, or music than other people, or have to ask others to speak more slowly, louder or repeat what they said.
If, however, your hearing problem is more severe than that, for example, if you also have trouble hearing loud sounds such as power tools or motor vehicles, or if you struggle to hear conversations in quiet settings, then your hearing loss is considered more significant than over-the-counter aids are intended to address.
If you find that your hearing loss is significant, you’ll need to work with an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist to find a hearing aid that works for you.
What to Look For
To help you choose a good OTC hearing aid that meets your needs and preferences, here are some important points to keep in mind.
Return policy: It can take weeks for your brain to adjust to hearing louder sounds through a hearing aid, so be sure to choose a brand that offers at least a 30-day free trial period, or money back return policy. The FDA requires manufactures to print their return policy on the package.
Set up: Many OTC hearing aids require a smartphone or computer to adjust and operate the devices to your specific needs, while others have the controls on the device. This will also be labeled on the box. Choose one that fits your preference and comfort level.
Battery: The package also should tell you what kind of battery the device uses. Some of the older versions of hearing aids have replaceable batteries, but many of the newer ones have rechargeable batteries that come in a charging case, where you charge them up every night.
Customer support: Some companies offer unlimited customer support to help you adjust or fine-tune your hearing aids, while others might limit support or charge extra. Be sure you check.
For more information, including product reviews, see the National Council on Aging’s OTC hearing aids buyer’s guide.
Jim Miller publishes the Savvy Senior, a nationally syndicated column that offers advice for Boomers and Seniors.