UNC senior Wallace Beeson was born completely deaf in her left ear and with partial hearing in her right.
“As I got older, my parents started noticing a lot more where I wasn't picking up on certain things,” she said. “Like there was a time when I was really little when I almost got hit by a car because I couldn't hear it coming behind me.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last Tuesday that it has established a new category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids.
This rule enables patients with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss to purchase devices directly, without the need of an exam or prescription from an audiologist. This change may lower the price of hearing aids for consumers, according to the FDA.
Despite her hearing loss being discovered as an infant, Beeson didn’t receive her first pair of hearing aids until she was 11-years-old.
She said the first day she received her hearing aids, she jumped when the elevator door went off because she wasn't used to the ding.
"I didn't realize so many different things had noise, like I had no idea," she said. "I remember listening to the radio for the first time with my hearing aids, and music sounded so different, and obviously so much clearer.”
Beeson said she is glad to see the FDA's decision as it will make hearing aids more accessible. Every human is born with eyes and ears and should have the ability to use them, she added.
Jan Withers, director of the Division of Services for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said there are 1.2 million North Carolinians with hearing loss. She said 90 percent of them could benefit from hearing aids, but only 16 percent use a device.
According to Patricia Johnson, a clinical audiologist at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center, OTC hearing aids will be more accessible because of their potentially lowered price.
“It's a good step in the right direction for improving access to hearing care, which is a very serious problem in my line of work,” Johnson said.
She added that one concern is that people with more extensive hearing loss will settle for inadequate care instead of pursuing professional treatment and many people may underestimate how much hearing loss they have.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mild to moderate hearing loss is defined as not being able to hear soft sounds or not fully hearing another person talking at a normal level. Hearing no speech when another person is speaking is defined as severe hearing loss.
Johnson and N.C. Central University professor Kellyn Hall emphasized that OTC hearing aids are only for adults over the age of 18 and not for children, who require specialized care.
Prescription hearing aids are programmed by an audiologist to meet the needs of the patients, whereas over-the-counter hearing aids would be pre-programmed or have limited self-adjustment capabilities, according to Johnson.
Johnson said OTC hearing aids can be a great start, but if they aren’t effective, a patient should see an audiologist.
Johnson and Stephanie Sjoblad, UNC Hearing and Communication Center clinic director, said hearing aids are different from just putting on a pair of glasses because there is a brain learning process associated with them.
Audiologists offer communication strategies and assistive technology to assist patients whose hearing is not fully restored by hearing aids, including Sjoblad herself, who wears a hearing aid and a cochlear implant.
Sjoblad encouraged consumers looking to treat their hearing loss to “shop around” to find the best fit for their needs at the best price.
“They might be surprised that an audiologist with some of the services may be the same or even less than something they're purchasing online or over-the-counter in a big box store,” Sjoblad said.
October is also National Protect Your Hearing Month, according to Withers, who encouraged college students to be mindful of damaging their ears when attending basketball games and concerts. Sjoblad encouraged anyone concerned about hearing loss to get a hearing test.
Untreated hearing loss can be very dangerous and is associated with cognitive decline and increased risk of hospitalizations and falls, Sjoblad said.
Beeson said there is a lot of stigma around hearing loss because people think it is debilitating. She said people are often surprised that she is deaf and can speak and attend university.
“We can do just as much as everyone else,” Beeson said. “We just need a little extra help with our ears.”
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