The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1108: Surprising Solutions to Help You Hear Better

Hearing aids can be extremely pricey, but new research shows some over-the-counter products can help you hear better. So can brain training with an audio game.
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Surprising Solutions to Help You Hear Better

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Do you wish you could hear better? Do you have trouble hearing what others are saying? Many people find it difficult to follow a conversation with multiple voices, especially in a crowded restaurant. In fact, by 2060, more than 70 million Americans will probably be experiencing hearing loss. Most of them will be over 70.

You don’t have to be a senior citizen to have trouble hearing, but many people are reluctant to spring for pricey hearing aids because they feel it marks them as old. Others just can’t afford more than a thousand dollars per ear. What if there were over-the-counter listening devices that could help at a fraction of the cost?

OTC Hearing Help:

Congress passed legislation in August 2017 that will legalize some OTC hearing aids within several years. In addition, there are already Personal Sound Amplification products that may be helpful. These over-the-counter devices are less expensive and not labeled for hearing loss treatment. That means the FDA has not approved them to treat hearing impairment. But might they help you hear better?

A small study reported in JAMA compared the performance of five of these devices to that of hearing aids. The scientists found that three of them were almost as effective as actual hearing aids. On the other hand, one did not help much and the least expensive one was actually worse than nothing at all. Find out more about the research from Dr. Nicholas Reed, one of the scientists who was responsible for it.

Which Ones Helped People Hear Better?

The Oticon Nera 2 brand hearing aid has a wholesale price of $1910. A patient would pay considerably more to have it fitted by an audiologist. In contrast, the top three personal sound amplification products cost approximately $250 to $350: the Sound World Solutions CS50+, the Soundhawk (regrettably discontinued) and the Etymotic BEAN.

How the Study Was Done:

Forty-two individuals tested each of the six devices in a sound booth with speech babble noise to mimic real-world situations such as a party or a restaurant. Without any device, the participants understood about 76 percent of the test sentences. With the hearing aid, they understood roughly 88 percent. Results for the personal sound amplification devices ranged from 87 percent (for the Sound World Solutions C550+) to 84 percent (for the Etymotic Bean). Any of these might be worth a try for a person who would like to hear better but is uncertain whether hearing aids are really necessary.

Understanding Speech in a Noisy Setting:

Hearing better is important. Understanding what you hear is another challenge altogether. Trying to comprehend people speaking in a noisy restaurant or other situation where there is a lot of background noise can be extremely difficult. However, people can learn to discriminate speech even in these situations by training themselves with a specially designed audio game. Dr. Dan Polley describes the research, published in Current Biology in November, 2017.  The audio game the scientists used is a research tool, not yet available commercially.

This Week’s Guests:

Nicholas S. Reed, AuD, is an instructor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head/Neck Surgery and a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Training Program in Clinical Investigation of the Center on Aging and Health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. For more information on the research he and his colleagues are pursuing, here is the link: The photo is of Dr. Reed.

Daniel B. Polley, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School. He holds the Amelia Peabody Chair in Otolaryngology and is the Director of the Lauer Tinnitus Research Center. He is also the Associate Director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Regarding hearing loss, I appreciate the desire to reduce the cost of hearing assistance; however, there are times the attention of a professional is of value. Prior to addressing use of amplifying devices, I think it is prudent to establish as much as possible the actual loss and range of loss of hearing. Realizing that many of the so-called professionals may not be as knowledgeable as advertised on the numerous adds and flyers we receive; therefore, you need to be cautious in the selection of help.

Just so you know where I am coming from I started wearing an aid at the age of 32 and am now 81. I started with a behind the ear model on my right ear and was told an aid would not help my left ear. Technology and progress has proven that statement incorrect. I now have two in the ear aids that do an excellent job and allows me to function day to day. I have no need for the so-called vanity aids the are nearly invisible. I just want to hear.

Regarding the use of TV ears, Bluetooth streamers etc. they tend to eat up the batteries and interfere with understanding of other sounds. My current aids have streamer capability; however, I no longer use that capability. I have found the best solution is a hearing loop. Hearing loops are very popular in Europe and England. Hooked to the TV sound source the loop will provide inductive transmission to your “T” coil equipped aid/aids additionally they do not increase the drain on the battery. Note your chair can be looped or as in my case my family room is looped. To get an excellent overview I recommend the site “”. There you will find a fantastic amount of hearing loss information and ways to deal with it. Note the Dr. that runs it says one of the best kept secrets in the USA is the hearing loop. I was already using a loop prior to finding the site.

Hopefully this is some help on what is a difficult subject.

I have a hard time hearing friends at a noisy restaurant and while watching tv. I went to an ENT and had my hearing checked. He said my hearing was better than his!!! I’m in my 60’s and he was in his 30’s!!! I still can’t hear!!! What’s wrong?????

A hearing test offered by an audiologist at my health plan removed any doubt that my hearing had deteriorated considerably, especially in the higher ranges, which includes women’s voices, including my wife’s. I finally went shopping for hearing aids, difficult because of how little I know about hearing and these products. Even with a discount from my health plan, their referral was about $5000! I was aware that the mark-ups on these products is high, so I checked elsewhere, where I could feel more comfortable, and found Costco much more reasonable at about $3ooo! They are providing good service, which I find necessary–it’s more complicated than just sticking a component into your ear canals, which can differ in size and sometimes shape, as I am experiencing. Clearly, it’s not a do-it-yourself situation, so it’s important to select someone that will stay with you in case of problems. I just got them, so I’ll see how this goes!

My mother in law had progressive hearing loss. She did not admit it for a long time, then when it was so bad she could not function she let in to going and getting tested. To make a long story short we learned from her experience that it is a mistake to wait. If you wait too long the mind looses it’s ability to tune out surrounding noise. It can relearn this but it takes a long time, some times months. She was too impatient (as most of us get as we get older). She never was able to wear them long enough to regain that ability. TV ears worked well for her to watch TV, until her eyes got too bad.

Now it is my turn. I did not wait as long to get my first hearing aids and did not have as much trouble as she had. It did take me a week or two to get use to them and a few months to be able to get the full benefit. I will say they are “hearing aids”. They will not give you back what you had when you were 20 years old. But they do help me understand people in conversations and TV programs. TV programs with a lot of background noise or music are still a problem sometimes, but it is much better than it was. Now that I am use to them I wear them all the time. I think the more you wear them the better they work for you. The old adage still applies here, “Practice makes Perfect”.

I just got my second set of hearing aids, Oticon, Opn 1’s, and they seem to be better that my old ones. They will also interface with an Apple iPhone via Blue Tooth without any external devices. I find that feature very beneficial. They also have a Tinnitus function, but I have not used it yet. I go back to see the doctor in a month and that is one of the things we will discuss then.

Hearing aid are way too expensive and I can understand why some people may not go that way. The over the counter amplifying devices are, in my opinion, worth considering if you cannot get true hearing aids. What you will lose is the custom adjusted sound to your hearing loss. So be careful and do not over boost the volume. You may need the volume higher in one frequency range than another, causing it to be too loud in the second range. You cannot turn them up high enough to get all you hearing back. For most of us the higher frequencies are gone forever no matter what we use.

Who sells the OTC hearing aids? Do you buy them online or in stores?

I was excited to read about this new chip that will be used in hearing aids, earphones, and such. I expect it will bring really big changes.

I never understood why hearing aids are so costly. They are not, after all, a new technology. It’s good to hear about these other devices. The healthiest way to deal with ambient noise, however, is to have less of it. Many people are accustomed to speaking at a volume far above what is needed, unaware of how intrusive it is, and also that nobody around them is interested their personal conversation. We need to modulate our voices, and restaurants have no business playing loud music as background. Although I am a senior citizen, I know of many young people who feel the same way. And the solution I propose has no cost attached.

There is a phone that can be purchased for those with hearing problems. Each person on each end must have one. So the mom and daughter can hear, as each word comes up printed out as well as spoken. Don’t know the name of it, but it is a godsend. Would try that too. I use a speaker phone always. And I could not handle TV ears (due to Trigeminal Neuralgia, ears are my trigger point) and due to Torturous Carotid Artery in the ear that has great loss. So I purchased Sennheiser Head Phones (wireless) and they are a godsend. Sound level is adjustable. Had Sony headphones, nope, nothing as good as the Sennheiser wireless headphones. Thank you for such good info always.

I have some minor difficulty hearing when other noise is present. If I could never hear the TV again, that would be no great loss. I am thinking that there might be a supplement or two that could help with hearing. There are herbs and all kinds of things to take for just about everything else.

Recent visit to the ENT and Audiologist revealed diminishing hearing ability. After much wax was removed from one ear, the test done, and then the results revealed. Of course, hearing aids were recommended. For one particular type, they informed me that they were covered by my insurance with the exception of the rechargeable unit. Now I’m in a quandary because it seems only to be a problem in noisy areas or the backseat of a moving car. I guess it is time for research.

It is a very interesting topic but since we can’t hear well,listening to a radio program will not serve any purpose. I would like to know if someone with a precise hearing device has good results. Best would be to name a few good products at reasonable price. I wear one from Costco but it’s not good help.

It would be appropriate to offer a transcription of the relevant part of this broadcast since aural forms are difficult for people with HEARING LOSS!

I also have tinnitus in both ears. Usually a high pitched buzz. Sometimes it sounds like a cricket. And there are times I can hear my pulse in my ears. Had tinnitus in left ear first, about 20 years. Then got in right as well. Have learned to live with it, but sometimes very annoying and nerve wracking. Am on second pair of hearing aids, very expensive and do nothing for tinnitus or background noise. So frustrating.

Please send and post more suggestions and experiences with hearing loss. In my case total deafness w/o expensive, poor working aids. I have bought 8 pairs over the past many years. Deafness is the most misunderstood ailment to strike. It affects everything, and what an isolater. Thanks.

Sherry, have you checked if your insurance covers cochlear implants? When my hearing became so bad in ear and the hearing aid really wasn’t helping anymore I finally gave in and had the day surgery. The implant works differently than hearing aids and I can hear so much better. I rarely use CC on the TV any more. I still wear a hearing aid in the other ear which doesn’t have the same amount of hearing loss as in the ear with the implant but the aid helps even out the sound.

Not always true. My hearing aids work well for me. I starting wearing one in while I was a teenager. Yes, they are expensive and I wish they were less expensive but I truly don’t know how I would get along with out them.

I have had hearing aids for several years. The last pair I bought I paid $3500 for them and they do me little or no good. So when these fail I will look into one of these OTC devices. I found help with the TV at home by purchasing a blue tooth device mage by Tao Tronics and bought on Amazon. Then I got a bluetooth headset and the combo works great for TV watching. Bottom line is that the expensive devices are not worth the money.

Not always true. My hearing aids work well for me. I starting wearing one in while I was a teenager. Yes, they are expensive and I wish they were less expensive but I truly don’t know how I would get along with out them.

I have noticed I can vastly improve my hearing by cupping my palm around my ear, just like a cartoon old person. There is a product called ear-glasses that look hideous but I bet they work. I wish there was a discreet way to alter the shape of my ear to improve my hearing.

Another thought, our ears change shape as we age, I believe the cartilage continues to grow hence old people have bigger ears than when they were young. Could this change affect our hearing?

I can actually tell you my heart-rate without feeling my pulse. My tinnitus , cricket sound, pulses with my heartbeats. All I need to do is look at a secondhand . I have not heard of anyone else who claims they suffer with tinnitus claim this . Anyone out there?

Yes Steven, I am out here as well! I am 72 years old, just now beginning to approach remedies for hearing loss. My loss is primarily in the higher frequencies. For example, I can’t hear the microwave when it beeps to tell me it’s finished, but I still have the ability to hear its magnetron whirring around at a mid-range frequency while it’s running.

I also have the exact same bilateral tinnitus you described, including an audible pulse in my left ear only. I am going to schedule an appointment with an ENT as a starting point. I’m reluctant to use a hearing aid supplier/dealer, initially, for obvious reasons. Thanks for your informative post.

Wow, interesting observation about tinnitus and heartbeat. Mine does the same, but I never noticed that before! Thanks!

My condition is similar, but not exactly the same: I have a high-pitched, almost continuous tone in my right auditory field, and occasional, mostly low-frequency sounds in my left, sometimes closely tracking diastole and systole, with transitional “squeaks.”
This seems to be associated with the onset of perceptible hearing loss.

I am very interested in this subject. I too have severe tinnitus – buzzing, not ringing in both ears from playing in a rock band in high school and early college years. It seems to be getting worse. I am wondering if anyone knows of any supplements that might help, or if noise cancelling headphones would help? I don’t want to spend the $ on these if they will not help my condition. Does anyone know if the products listed above would help? Thank you for your thoughts.

I’ve read that folic acid helps.

Great program. Question: if one does nothing in early hearing loss, will this contribute to sooner than later loss that is more serious. Does deteriorating hearing always get worse ?

Dr. Reed seemed to be a sincere, informed, and forthcoming Dr.
His speech style was easy to listen to.

Ideas gleaned from other people’s experiences can help.

I have wireless headphones that I wear in order to hear the TV, and ALL ambient noise, not just conversations, make it difficult to hear what’s being said on the tube. Oscillating fans and running water and crickets and frogs all contribute to the problem. In fact, I also have trouble with the music on some programs being so dominant that I can’t clearly hear the conversations, even with my headphones; in these cases my husband can’t make out the conversations, either. I have read that this is due to poor sound-editing in production.

I’ve also read that in-ear hearing devices (such as earbuds) can actually CAUSE hearing loss, and this is disturbing. My Mom is quite hard of hearing and uses TV Ears, and I shudder to think of how difficult it will be to talk with her if her hearing gets any worse, as I live several hundred miles away and am having trouble speaking with her over the phone, as it is.

Is there a reverse hearing aid for misophonia issues?

any help for people who hear too much? I have misophonia, or extreme sound sensitivity to certain sounds…wish there was a ‘reverse hearing aid’ for it!

If crowd-noise is a problem I have one suggestion. Try out a device in real-world circumstances to confirm that it will help you. The mimicking of crowd-noise in a sound booth or with headphones is simply an insufficient test compared to the real-world and I suspect it is because the added problem of echo is left out. As a blind guy who depends on clear hearing for safety white noise plus echo is one of those situations in which 2+2=5. There can simply be more sound coming into the brain than can be accurately discriminated.

I’ve had tinnitus nearly all my life since age 20 when I suffered a ruptured eardrum. I’m now 81; noticed an increase in ability to hear, that is, I could again hear my car turn signals clicking, after swimming every morning for several weeks. Don’t know if it was routine alcohol swab out that helped or what. I did wear ear plugs while swimming also. The extra ability to hear has continued even though I haven’t been able to swim for the last several months.

To Gerry Maybe you didn’t notice but may have been eating more vitamin-C rich foods. I heard a long time ago that vitamin-C helps relieving tinnitus. Hope this helps. Fran from Montréal

For me, this is a real “ear openener”. I saw the adds but thought they were a
come-on. Thank you Alex

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