DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's listen now to some good news for anyone worried about hearing loss. There is a scientifically valid hearing test now that you can take over the phone. Now, one-third of Americans 65 and older have some level of hearing impairment. But typically, they wait years to get tested. This new test can be taken immediately, and it costs only $5. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Maybe you had a hearing test when you were a kid. It probably sounded something like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PURE TONES)
CHARLES WATSON: The standard test of hearing loss for the last almost hundred years has been your ability to hear a pure tone, a whistle or a beep.
JAFFE: And that kind of test won't work over the phone, says Dr. Charles Watson. He's the principal investigator for the National Hearing Test. It's a nonprofit organization that administers the hearing test you can take over the phone in the privacy of your own home. And it sounds completely different.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOMETRIC TEST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through static) Eight, nine, one.
JAFFE: You're asked to press the telephone buttons that correspond to the numbers you hear buried in all that background noise. Sometimes, it's pretty hard to pick them out.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOMETRIC TEST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through static) Nine, three, four.
JAFFE: The telephone approach has been studied for years, since it was first used in Netherlands, though studies have shown that it identifies hearing impairment just as well as the traditional beep-beep test, though, it doesn't diagnose the cause. To take the telephone test, you go to the national hearing test website. We have a link on npr.org. You pay your 5 bucks, and you're given a phone number to call and a 10-digit access code. The hope is that this convenient, low-cost alternative will get more people to have their hearing checked because, as Watson explains, most people with hearing loss are in denial.
WATSON: They say, my wife mumbles. And all the restaurants have gotten too noisy these days; you can't have a conversation anymore. And my grandchildren don't articulate.
JAFFE: This almost never happens, says Watson, if someone thinks their vision is a problem.
WATSON: Because in the case of vision, you have all these objective pieces of evidence about you. The New York Times' font hasn't gotten smaller. It's you.
JAFFE: The telephone hearing test got started with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is also supporting Watson's follow-up research. It shows that about 80 percent of the people who have taken the test discover significant hearing loss in one or both ears. But in the year following the test, only 20 percent or so have taken the next step and seen a specialist. And maybe that's because they know what they're in for, says Dr. Frank Lin, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.
FRANK LIN: The current cost can range anywhere from about 2,000 to $8,000 to get a pair of hearing aids. That means for the average American, that could be their third-largest purchase in life after a house and a car.
JAFFE: Also, hearing aids aren't covered by Medicare and are rarely covered by insurance. But the human cost of doing nothing is also high. Lin has done studies showing a correlation between hearing loss and the risk of dementia.
LIN: We're finding that individuals with a mild, a moderate and severe hearing loss respectively basically had about a twofold, a threefold and a fivefold higher risk of developing dementia over time.
JAFFE: So far, tens of thousands of people have taken the telephone hearing test. And while Charles Watson's study showed that most test-takers don't follow up with a specialist, they're still twice as likely to do so as people who don't get tested at all. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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