By Paul Irving
Apr 22, 2019 11:48 am ET
Paul Irving is chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, chairman of Encore.org, and distinguished scholar in residence at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.
For my wife, Susie, it started with our TV at high volume. Then it was her retreat from talk in noisy restaurants and conversations at work. We’d joke that it wasn’t her hearing, it was that after so many years together she’d heard all she wanted from me.
Energetic and smart, Susie was reticent to deal with her hearing loss, fearing that hearing aids would make her look weak or feeble. A successful real-estate agent in Los Angeles, she’d tell me that style sometimes seems to matter more than experience in her business. She knew that younger people are presumed to be more effective, that ageist attitudes are deeply rooted in business, social institutions and the broader culture. She had overheard slights about older agents in town. She wasn’t immune to the realities.
Susie’s concern that hearing aids might signify decline and diminished capacity had to be balanced against the prospect of better hearing.
It’s a concern that older adults find all too familiar. Hearing loss affects one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those older than 75, according to the National Institutes of Health.
We know that hearing loss is an important quality-of-life problem--and that hearing aids in many cases can provide a solution—but many people still struggle to get past the stigma. Susie’s experience hit home for me personally and professionally. I see that struggle often in my work to promote healthy and purposeful aging. In a society designed around youth, older people are often shunted to the sidelines. Sadly, but understandably, they internalize the negative biases about age that infect work and social settings. They don’t want to be defined as “old.”
But this is not just about vanity. It’s a major public health challenge. Older adults with hearing loss have an increased likelihood of falls and they’re at risk for the social isolation and loneliness that research tells us can be as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As if that wasn’t enough, Johns Hopkins’ studies reveal a connection between hearing loss, cognitive decline and dementia.
Still, only one-fifth of people who could benefit from a hearing aid seek help. Even among hearing-aid users, most lived with hearing loss for more than 10 years before seeking help.
Susie knew the risks of hearing loss. She read all she could get her hands on and sought support and encouragement from an audiologist friend. She decided to get tested; but after her first exam, she still had reservations. She seemed frustrated and discouraged. She said that she didn’t want to have more health visits to schedule or equipment to worry about. Her hearing wasn’t getting any better, but she clearly needed time.
A few weeks later, Susie decided to try testing again—this time in a different office. After this appointment, her reaction was different. Maybe it was the tester’s approach or her realization that with hearing aids she could hear sounds she had been missing. Maybe she just needed some space to adjust and move from denial to acceptance.
We talked and she asked a few more friends for their input. Not long after, she took the leap. Her hearing aids took some getting used to, but she hasn’t regretted her decision.
Now, Susie’s back in conversations and our TV is at normal volume. Just as important, her fears have been put to rest. Her clients have been nothing but supportive and her business is up. Friends and family have applauded her decision and want to hear about it. Her self-image is fully intact.
So Susie wants to do her part to promote awareness and embolden others. Overcoming ageism is the ultimate goal, but she knows that will take time. She sees nearer-term possibilities.
The market for hearing aids is changing; direct consumer sales and increased competition are on the horizon, Susie talks about taking a cue from eyeglasses. Glasses are assistive, but without stigma. They successfully integrate function and fashion. They’re flaunted by celebrities, musicians, athletes—and style conscious real-estate agents. The dominant company is not a medical-device firm; it’s Luxottica, the Italian design and manufacturing conglomerate.
Good hearing, Susie says, should be just as fashionable as good vision. She’s right. There’s an opportunity to serve a need and portray hearing aids in positive ways. For decades, the market has been dominated by a handful of manufacturers. With the largest ever population of older adults, hungry for new products and services to suit their needs, more entrepreneurs and investors should be involved. Bose Corp is now in the hearing aid business. Others will follow.
Making hearing aids more affordable also can help in the efforts to destigmatize. Susie knows that we’re fortunate. The cost is too high for far too many Americans. Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids and neither do most private insurers. There’s some hope on that front. Hearing aids for those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss should become more affordable following passage of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 and regulations to be established by the Food and Drug Administration.
Susie talks openly about her own experience and the importance of tackling the stigma. She wants role models to advocate for change. She hopes that designers, innovators and advertisers will lead a movement to make hearing aids fashionable. She wants me to write about it. And I have.
Mr. Irving can be reached at email@example.com.