A year ago, the Food and Drug Administration introduced new regulations permitting the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids while establishing safety and efficacy standards.
This move, initially projected to take three years but extended to five, promised cost-effective, high-quality hearing aids accessible for individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss, both online and at local pharmacies and retail outlets.
The situation is a mixed one.
Manufacturers and retailers have made significant strides in enhancing the accessibility and affordability of hearing aids. However, the over-the-counter hearing aid market remains perplexing, if not chaotic, particularly for the older consumers these regulations aimed to assist.
Over the past year, there has been a resurgence in the recognition of the importance of addressing hearing loss, which affects two-thirds of individuals over the age of 70. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted the first randomized clinical trial demonstrating that hearing aids could help mitigate the progression of cognitive decline.
To provide some context, the influential Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care in 2020 identified hearing loss as the most significant potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia. Previous research had established a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Dr. Frank Lin, a public health researcher and otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of the recent study, stated, "What remained unanswered was, if we treat hearing loss, does it actually reduce cognitive loss?" The ACHIEVE study (Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders) demonstrated that, at least for a specific group of older adults, it could.
Among nearly 1,000 individuals aged 70 to 84 with untreated mild to moderate hearing loss, half received hearing assessments from audiologists, were provided with midpriced hearing aids, and received guidance on their use for several months. The control group participated in a health education program.
Over a span of three years, the study found that hearing aid usage had a negligible impact on the cognitive health of healthy volunteers at low risk of cognitive decline. However, among participants who were older and had lower incomes, hearing aids reduced the rate of cognitive decline by 48% compared to the control group, a difference that the researchers deemed "clinically meaningful."
This specific subset of participants had lower income, were older, had lower education levels, and higher rates of diabetes and hypertension. As these factors are also associated with dementia, this group stands to benefit the most from hearing aid use.