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Health Care & Insurance

Hearing Aids of the Future Are Here and Discreet

New high-tech hearing aids let you listen to what you want and tune out everything else.

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Chances are that if you grooved to Motown, the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s and ’70s, the sounds of silence may mean something different to you now. Roughly one-third of seniors between the ages of 65 and 75 have some hearing loss, and nearly half of those over 75 have difficulty hearing, according to the National Institutes of Health. For many, hearing aids can help. And today’s models, while often pricey, are discreet and packed with high-tech features.

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The natural aging process and a lifetime of exposure to loud noise—from rock concerts to lawn mowers—play a part in damaging the hair cells in your inner ear, which pick up sound waves and send them as signals to the brain. And because hearing loss occurs gradually, friends and family may notice changes before you do, says Pam Mason, director of audiology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. But if you find yourself turning up the volume on the TV or struggling to hear in a crowded restaurant, it’s probably time to visit an audiologist. After identifying the sounds and situations that you have difficulty with, the audiologist will determine if hearing aids can help and what type may work for you.

Nearly invisible. Modern digital hearing aids can be divided into two categories. Over-the-ear models rest behind the ear and are connected by a wire or tube to a receiver in the ear. In-ear models are about the size of a dime and rest discreetly in the outer ear or even inside the ear canal. And unlike analog hearing aids, which amplify all sounds equally, digital devices can amplify and clarify speech and allow noises such as the hum of a refrigerator to fade into the background.

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Many of these mini computers also pair with smartphone apps that allow you to tinker with the settings based on your environment, such as where you’re sitting in relation to the person you’re listening to. Many also include Bluetooth settings that allow you to pipe in music or phone calls directly through your hearing aids without using headphones or holding the phone to your ear.

The biggest downside: Hearing aids are expensive, and Medicare doesn’t cover the cost. The average price for one rings in at more than $2,300, including fitting and adjustment by an audiologist. (Most people need two hearing aids.) Medicare Part B will cover a hearing exam if the doctor is checking to see if you need other medical treatment. Some private insurers, including some Medicare Advantage plans, will cover part of the necessary testing and evaluation, and they may even cover a portion of the cost of the devices. Eligible veterans can receive testing, hearing aids and other services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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After checking with your insurer to see what it will cover, discuss payment options with the audiologist. You might be able to buy hearing aids for less online, but you’ll typically need to mail them back for adjustments. Costco sells larger, less aesthetic hearing aids for as little as $500 each for a basic model, or $900 for an over-the-ear, Bluetooth-enabled model. Partici­pating stores also offer no-cost screenings as well as periodic checkups and adjustments. To cover out-of-pocket costs and replacement batteries, consider using money from your flexible spending account (if you’re still on the job) or a health savings account.

You may soon have another option. Congress is considering legislation that would make hearing aids available over the counter. That could allow people with mild hearing loss to buy hearing aids without consulting an audiologist, and the devices could sell for between $250 and $300 at drugstores and other retailers.