Hearing loss (HL) is common among older adults and is associated with significant psychosocial, cognitive, and physical sequelae. Hearing aids (HA) can help, but not all individuals with HL use them. Hearing loss seems like one of the great equalizers of old age, striking people of all kinds as their ears gradually lose the ability to pick out sounds or hear certain pitches. 

But a new national study reveals major gaps in whether Americans over age 55 get help for their hearing loss gaps that vary greatly with age, race, education, and income. Hearing-impaired veterans ages 55 to 64 were more than twice as likely as their non-veteran peers to use a hearing aid, even after the researchers corrected for other differences. The gap between veterans and non-veterans was also significant for those over age 65.

Hearing aids are not easy for many to obtain due to their costs. However, some additional issues place at-risk groups at an even larger disadvantage to achieving good hearing health. 

National survey and local interviews

The analysis included data from more than 35,500 people nationwide over age 55 who said they had hearing loss. Also, McKee and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 21 other older adults with hearing loss in the communities surrounding the university.

The authors conclude that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should consider covering hearing aids for Medicare participants, and those in Medicaid plans for lower-income adults of any age. Some state Medicaid plans do cover hearing aids, but it is not required.

More findings from the study:

1. The percentage of older adults with hearing loss who used a hearing aid rose with age, from about 15 percent of those in their late 50s to more than 57 percent of those in their late 80s.

2. Forty percent of non-Hispanic white adults with hearing loss used a hearing aid, compared with 18.4% of non-Hispanic Black and 21.1% of Hispanic adults with hearing loss.

3. Nearly 46% of hearing-impaired older adults who had gone to college reporting that they used a hearing aid, compared with just under 29% of those who hadn't graduated from high school.

4. Nearly half of those with incomes in the top 25% wore a hearing aid, compared with about one-quarter of those in the bottom 25%.

5. There were no significant differences in hearing aid use based on the size of the community where the person lived, nor their level of health literacy as measured on a standard test.

More about hearing loss

Estimates of hearing loss incidence place it at 29% of people in their 50s, 45% of those in their 60s, 68% of those in their 70s and 89% of those in their 80s.

Previous studies have shown that untreated hearing loss reduces older adults' ability to carry out everyday tasks, reduces their quality of life, and is linked to social isolation, lower income, reduced cognitive function and poorer physical and psychological health.

McKee leads the Health Info Lab, which is researching health information use and literacy among deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.