The long awaited regulatory action from the Food and Drug Administration on over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids has been finalized. The FDA action will enable consumers with mild to moderate hearing impairment to purchase hearing aids directly from retail stores or online. Consumers will no longer need a medical exam, prescription or a fitting adjustment by an audiologist to use a hearing aid. This new regulatory framework will assure the safety and effectiveness of OTC hearing aids and also encourage innovation and competition in the hearing aid technology market.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), age is the strongest predictor of hearing loss among adults aged 20-69, with the greatest amount of hearing loss in the 60 to 69 age group. Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) have ever used them, demonstrating a massive unmet need in this country.
If you believe a hearing aid can improve the quality of your life here are some tips for navigating the OTC device marketplace:
There are 6 main types of hearing aid styles. The smallest in appearance is the completely-in-the-canal-device. This type of device will most likely require an appointment with an audiologist since it needs to be molded to fit inside your specific ear canal. It is the smallest and least visible type of hearing aid.
The next smallest is the in-the-canal hearing aid which is also custom fit to your ear. It is usually bigger than the completely-in-the-canal devices which allows for more volume and memory controls to fit on the device. One drawback is that the smaller size means smaller batteries and the need for more frequent charging.
In-the-ear hearing aids are fit to sit within the outer portion of the ear. These devices have larger batteries than the canal fit devices and more controls for volume and memory. One drawback is that they might pick up more wind noise than the smaller in-canal devices.
Behind-the-ear (BTE) devices hook over the top of your ear. The controls rest behind the ear with a tube connecting the control hardware to a custom earpiece (ear mold) that fits in your ear canal. This type is appropriate for people with almost any type of hearing loss and can have directional microphones that are capable of more amplification than are other styles.
A subset of BTE devices known as receiver-in-canal (RIC) hearing aids place the speaker at the end of a thin electrical wire that connects to the control case. The speaker is enclosed inside a flexible earmold that sits in the ear canal. Two advantages of this design are that sounds tend to be clearer and more intact since the speaker rests closer to the ear canal and that by distancing the speaker from the microphone feedback is minimized.
The sixth main category of device is open-fit hearing aids. The hearing aids are unique because they do not block the ear canal which provides a more natural listening experience. Another advantage of the open-fit design is that there is no ear mold so you do not need to sit for a custom fitting. One drawback though is that it can be more difficult to hear conversations in noisy environments with these devices so they may not be the best choice for people with more severe hearing loss.
There are recent innovations in hearing aid technology that make the devices more convenient and cost-effective for users. Be sure to understand the projected battery life and charging requirements of any devices you are considering. Many of the newer devices are rechargeable and come in a charging case similar to wireless earbuds.
Devices like the Phonak Audeo can be automatically charged and cleaned in a storage case
Some new models of hearing aids are built with Bluetooth compatibility. Devices like the Audicus Wave allow you to stream directly from your Apple or Android smartphone to make calls, watch TV, or listen to music. If you don’t want to switch between your hearing aid and a standard earbud, look for this Bluetooth capability.
Specific Apps for Device Control
The ubiquity of smartphones gives hearing aid users a new way of controlling their devices. Clients of the ReSound family of devices can use the ReSound Control App to turn their smartphone into a one-touch hearing aid control panel. Users can adjust the volume of the device, switch programs, and control streaming all without physically touching the hearing aid.
For whichever model of hearing aid you decide to go with, make sure you are aware of any brand specific trial periods that are available (usually at least 30 days risk free) and what the manufacturers return policy is. The FDA is requiring OTC hearing aid manufacturers to state their return policy on the label so make sure it is included with any device packaging.