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Cost keeps many from getting hearing aids

Only a little more than a third of older adults who say they have hearing loss are using a hearing aid to correct it, research shows.

A new national study reveals major gaps in whether Americans over age 55 get help for their hearing loss—gaps that vary greatly with age, race, education, and income.

People who are non-Hispanic white, college-educated, or have incomes in the top 25 percent are about twice as likely as those of other races, education levels, or income ranges to have a hearing aid.

Cost is the most to blame, researchers say. Hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars out of a patient’s pocket, since most health insurance programs, including Medicare, don’t cover them.

VA insurance

In fact, researchers say the only factor that leveled the playing field for hearing aid use was having insurance through the Veterans Administration, which covers hearing aids in many cases.

“Many people may not realize that Medicare does not cover hearing aids.”

Hearing-impaired veterans ages 55 to 64 were more than twice as likely as their non-veteran peers to use a hearing aid, even after researchers corrected for other differences. The gap between veterans and non-veterans was also significant for those over age 65.

But detailed interviews conducted for the study show that personal concerns about hearing aid use, and lack of engagement with health providers, also play a role.

“Hearing aids are not easy for many to obtain due to their costs,” says Michael McKee, a family medicine physician and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who led the analysis.

“However, there are a number of additional issues that place at-risk groups at an even larger disadvantage to achieving good hearing health. Many of these issues are beyond the financial aspects, including racial/ethnicity and sociocultural elements, for instance, stigma, and vanity.”

Medicare and Medicaid

McKee, who uses a cochlear implant to overcome his own hearing loss, worked on the study with Helen Levy, a health economist and professor at the Institute for Social Research, and other colleagues. They used survey data from the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study, which is based on interviews conducted by ISR with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The analysis, which appears in the Gerontologist, included data from more than 35,500 people nationwide over age 55 who said they had hearing loss. In addition, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 21 other older adults with hearing loss in the communities surrounding the university.

The authors conclude that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should consider covering hearing aids for Medicare participants, and those in Medicaid plans for lower-income adults of any age. Some state Medicaid plans do cover hearing aids but it is not required.

“Many people may not realize that Medicare does not cover hearing aids,” Levy says “But it doesn’t, so cost can be a significant obstacle preventing older adults with hearing loss from getting the help that they need.”

More findings from the study:

  • The percentage of older adults with hearing loss who used a hearing aid rose with age, from about 15 percent of those in their late 50s to more than 57 percent of those in their late 80s.
  • Forty percent of non-Hispanic white adults with hearing loss used a hearing aid, compared with 18.4 percent of non-Hispanic black adults and 21.1 percent of Hispanic adults with hearing loss.
  • Nearly 46 percent of hearing-impaired older adults who had gone to college reported that they used a hearing aid, compared with less than 29 percent of those who hadn’t graduated from high school.
  • Nearly half of those with incomes in the top 25 percent wore a hearing aid, compared with about one-quarter of those in the bottom 25 percent.
  • There were no significant differences in hearing aid use based on the size of the community where the person lived, nor their level of health literacy as measured on a standard test.

Interviews showed that cost, lack of insurance coverage (or knowledge about insurance coverage), vanity, and stigma were common reasons for not using hearing aids. Participants also cited a lack of attention to hearing loss by their primary care provider, or worries about finding an audiologist they could trust.

How hearing loss and depression are connected

Many interview participants who used a hearing aid mentioned efforts that hearing-related professionals made to connect them to discounts and insurance programs.

Estimates of hearing loss incidence place it at 29 percent of people in their 50s, 45 percent of those in their 60s, 68 percent of those in their 70s, and 89 percent of those in their 80s.

Previous studies have shown that untreated hearing loss reduces older adults’ ability to carry out everyday tasks, reduces their quality of life, and is linked to social isolation, lower income, reduced cognitive function, and poorer physical and psychological health.

A recent study led by McKee’s colleague Elham Mahmoudi found that having a hearing aid was associated with a lower chance of being hospitalized or visiting an emergency room in the past year. That study focused on individuals over age 65 who had severe hearing loss and used data from a federal database.

Source: University of Michigan

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