Over-the-counter hearing aids: Why it could be life-changing for many

Now that hearing aids are available for the first time over the counter, FOX 35 News wanted to look into what sort of impact that could really have. We talked with experts and patients to learn more about whom this helps, and to what degree.

We started first with Braden Baker. Now 15 years old, the boy was born with severe hearing loss.

"I got my first pair of hearing aids when I was about three months old," Baker explained.

He says his dog ate his hearing aids at ten years old – he’d left them on the floor. He got new ones, but they cost between six and eight thousand dollars to replace.

"That made me realize that this is a serious issue and there are so many families out there that can’t afford hearing aids or maybe don’t even have a place to go to get hearing aids," said Baker. 

The boy made it his mission to raise money and help get people hearing aids all over the world. That’s how he’s come into contact with Elyse Dickerson, who founded an ear care company.

"What we know is that only about 16% of people that need hearing aids actually have them, and that’s because they are so cost prohibitive," said Dickerson.

Even if you have health insurance, hearing aids and visits to the audiologist might not be covered. Over-the-counter hearing aids could be a solution to that problem. The prices vary depending on brand and quality. Simpler ones could run around $100, and more advanced ones could be more like $1,600 per ear.

Audiologists also say to make sure to check with your insurance. If hearing aids are covered by your policy, it may be cheaper to get a prescription one than an over-the-counter version. For many, though, OTC hearing aids will be life-changing. 

Some businesses best known for their headphones, like Sony, are starting to produce hearing aids, and major audiology companies like Hear USA are getting on board with them now too.  James Gilchrist, the President of HearUSA, says that he’s a perfect candidate for over-the-counter hearing aids, as a person with mild to moderate hearing loss.

"One of our core principles is that we are going to stand to empower and break down the stigma. We believe OTC devices can be a clear way of doing that," said Gilchrist. 

Over-the-counter hearing aids will come with apps that let you adjust tone, pitch, volume, and so on – letting you play around until you realize your hearing has improved.  The FDA intends them specifically for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss; you have to be 18 or older to buy one.

Dr. Dan Troast, an audiologist with Hear USA, says prescription hearing aids are much more tailored – you go through extensive testing to find out exactly what adjustments are needed to make sure you can hear as well as possible.

"We know that untreated hearing loss leads to social isolation. When you isolate yourself, you’re at higher risk for depression and anxiety, and it accelerates dementia and cognitive decline," said Dr. Troast. 

Audiologists say there are 50 million Americans with hearing loss and another 27 million with mild-to-moderate hearing loss The faster they can get help, the better. Although prescriptive hearing aids are ideal, if the over-the-counter version is what gets your foot in the door to start your treatment, doctors like Troast are fine with that.

"If you have untreated hearing loss, the areas in your brain that process auditory stimulation are actually going to atrophy," said Dr. Troast. 

That being said, every person FOX 35 talked to for this story agreed, if you’re worried about hearing loss, you should still talk to an audiologist. Some offices, including Hear USA, offer free hearing tests.

"I think that over-the-counter hearing aids are amazing and super beneficial to the whole hearing community. While I do still think that people with hearing loss should go and get their own audiologist and get a hearing aid that’s more suitable for them. But I think over-the-counter hearing aids becoming more available is such a huge step in the right direction," said Baker. 

Hear USA also offers a free online hearing test.