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Why Many Older Adults With Hearing Loss Aren't Getting The Care They Need

Hearing loss is a common problem among older adults. But it’s often left untreated for lots of reasons — but a big reason, according to one researcher, is ageism. 

Dr. Justin Golub is an associate professor of otolaryngology at Columbia University, Irving Medical Center, in New York City. He says a child and an adult with the same level of hearing loss are unlikely to get equal treatment:

"The child will get a hearing aid, it'll probably be paid for by their insurance, the parents will encourage the child to wear the hearing aid, the child will wear the hearing aid and they will do better," he explained.

"In contrast, if you have an older person that has the same hearing loss, they'll probably delay seeing the doctor, the doctor will be less enthusiastic about recommending a hearing aid, insurance probably won't pay for it. And that person probably will end up delaying their care and doing worse."

And a hearing aid can cost thousands of dollars.

"There is a movement to get Medicare to pay for hearing aids," he said. "There's a bill that was working its way through Congress, but I understand it's stalled now."

But Golub says we could soon have over-the-counter hearing aids that cost just a few hundred dollars. 

"These over the counter hearing aids, they are a step in the right direction," he said. "It's going to help a lot of people, it'll improve accessibility, it'll make it cheaper, but it is not for everybody. If you can't use a smartphone well, these products probably won't work great for you."

Because the idea, says Golub, is that you would set up your device using an app.

"Is it going to be good as a customized hearing aid from an audiologist? Of course not," he said. "But it will be a fraction of the cost and way more accessible."

When these over-the-counter hearing aids eventually hit the market, they’ll be for adults who believe they have mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

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Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.