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Some people with hearing loss want to change the rules so they can buy hearing aids over the counter at a local pharmacy. These would be stylish earbuds that can help with mild to moderate hearing problems. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Four out of 5 older Americans with hearing loss just ignore it, in part because a hearing aid is an unwelcomed sign of aging. But KR Liu, who has advocated for hearing help for years, says the fix could be as simple as buying stylish reading glasses.
KR LIU: Something that's hip and cool and people have multiple different pairs, and it's fashionable.
NEIGHMOND: Liu, who has severe hearing loss herself, works with a high-tech start-up, Doppler Labs. She helped design a device that will help anyone embarrassed about their hearing loss just blend in.
LIU: And if one person is wearing their technology to, you know, stream music or a phone call to turn down the world and another person is wearing it to amplify speech and hear their conversation, no one is going to know that that's why they're doing that. So you're wearing tech in your year proudly.
NEIGHMOND: It's a little circular device that sits in your ear. It can be adjusted to individual hearing using an app on a smartphone to control volume, cut out background noise or turn up the sound in a theater. It's pretty much a hearing aid, Liu says, except right now, federal regulations prohibit the company from saying that.
LIU: Which is kind of disappointing when, you know, there are people who come to us and say, you know, I want to try your product or I have used your product and have mild to moderate hearing loss, and it's changed my life.
NEIGHMOND: Current rules require a hearing specialist, like an audiologist, test your hearing and customize the hearing aid. It often takes numerous visits and costs thousands of dollars. Richard Einhorn, a well-known composer of modern classical music, knows that well. Seven years ago, he woke up at 5 a.m., his ears ringing with a loud, piercing hiss.
RICHARD EINHORN: Obviously, I hit the panic button, and I jumped out of bed and immediately fell over onto the floor really hard.
NEIGHMOND: Einhorn suffered an inner ear infection that caused him to lose balance. He went deaf in his right ear. His hearing aids cost $5,000 and were not covered by insurance.
EINHORN: I'm a composer, for goodness sakes. This is not an easy purchase to scrounge up the money for.
NEIGHMOND: Einhorn is on the board of the Hearing Loss Association of America, which is pushing Congress to remove the requirement that hearing aids be dispensed only by an audio specialist. People with severe hearing loss would still need to be examined by a medical professional, but people with moderate hearing loss could buy hearing aids over the counter. This could lead to greater use. And that's a good thing, says Dr. Frank Lin, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Johns Hopkins University. He's done numerous studies about the consequences of not treating hearing loss.
FRANK LIN: We're finding that the greater the hearing loss is actually the greater the risk of loss of thinking and memory abilities over time.
NEIGHMOND: Which often leads to social isolation, a known risk factor for dementia. KR Liu says opening up the market will foster competition, drive prices down and encourage companies to come up with newer and better products. She envisions a future that solves one of the biggest problems, hearing in a noisy environment.
LIU: I would walk into a room, and all I would hear is what I want to hear - right? - is the person talking in front of me in a loud cocktail party. And I don't have a single distraction, and that technology is doing all the work for me. And I can enjoy the conversation. Nothing really exists like that today, but I very much see something like that down the road.
NEIGHMOND: Manufacturers of hearing aids oppose rolling back regulations. So do groups of audio specialists who argue consumers cannot properly customize their own device. But in an era where politicians don't seem to agree on anything, this bill has bipartisan support. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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