Post CES reflection on role of technology and Alzheimer's.
Boston, mid-May, 2016
My neighbor can't hear me. I live near a 67-year-old man who likes to talk, but has difficulty hearing the response, which usually has to be repeated before he gets it unless he is sitting close and looking you straight in the eye. We've known him for quite a few years and although his hearing seems worse, he doesn't wear a hearing aid. It isn't because of money -- since he still works at a good job, can afford a new car and just bought a boat. Meanwhile, hearing aid technology is evolving (though still not far or fast enough) so that once he became used to it, he could certainly have a more conversational life.
As folks age, hearing loss worsens. There is a strong relationship between age and reported hearing loss: 18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing impairment. That's nearly half of the 75+ world, a longevity revolution that could result in another 10 or 20 more years of living with hearing loss -- perhaps becoming more isolated. My neighbor spends quite a bit of time away from his family at his weekend home and is enjoying exploring the large nearby lake -- on his own. Perhaps this enjoyment is related to the fact that he doesn't have to both focus his listening on passengers and pay attention to the lake surroundings at the same time.
Are hearing aids compelling for those who could use them? Here's a surprising statistic - "only 20% of the 36 million Americans who could benefit are actually wearing hearing aids." And 3 out of 5 seniors who could benefit do not have them. While top-of-the line prescription hearing aids can cost upwards of $3000, over the counter devices can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, and the newest tech today can be almost invisible at a cost of $1600/year. Meanwhile, studies have correlated hearing loss with depression and a recent Johns Hopkins study linked it to dementia in older adults.
Hearing aids have become quite sophisticated -- though inadequate. The stigma that may once have been associated with wearing hearing aids seems quaint in a world where deranged-looking business execs wander alone around airports blabbing away with large Bluetooth devices stuck in their ears. Today's latest in hearing aids are far lower profile. Instead, the smallest hearing aids are miniature devices "that hide behind the ear, while a slim wire slips around to carry amplified sound into the ear." So if seeing an audiologist, getting a prescription, diverting money from cars and boats, asking adult children to help out (or having them offer to help) would mitigate isolation, depression and have a possible impact on the slide of some elderly into dementia, what's the problem? What if a hearing aid, no matter that it is still imperfect if no longer stigmatizing -- really reduces depression and losing the ability to hear is correlated with dementia? I'm asking -- I really don't know the answer.