As people age, their ability to hear tends to diminish. About 30 percent of Americans ages 65 to 74 suffer from hearing loss, and about 47 percent of Americans 75 and older suffer from hearing loss, according to Dr. Karen Lemme, an audiologist in Altoona.
Yet, only about 10 to 15 percent of those people will seek help by purchasing hearing aids.
Lemme, owner of Lemme Audiology Associates, said two factors deter people from purchasing hearing aids - stigma and price.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) Dr. Karen Lemme, audiologist, conducts a hearing test in her Altoona office.
She said for many people stigma seems to be more of a problem than price. She said people associate hearing aids with being old, but owning a device could improve one's lifestyle.
People who can't hear in a social setting, such as a restaurant, may avoid public places and going out with friends, she said. Being social and active is encouraged to stimulate the mind.
The other reason people are reluctant to get the devices is price, with most hearing aids costing $1,000 or more.
Research and technology is partially responsible for that cost.
In the past, hearing aid users would insert analog devices in their ears. The analog style would whistle and cause feedback.
Lemme, who has been a practicing audiologist for more than 26 years, said the analog devices basically amplified sounds using a microphone and were adjusted using a screwdriver.
Today's digital models have corrected many of the problems associated with analog devices and reduce background noise.
Ralph Jacobs, owner of Altoona Professional Hearing Aid Center in Park Hills Plaza, said digital hearing aids were developed about 15 years ago and have been completely digital in the last five years.
"A lot of research has gone into building them and designing them," he said, but the demand for them is not as high as it is for other electronic devices.
"They're not like a computer where there is a mass market for them," Jacobs said. "or an iPhone or iPad."
As the digital devices become more readily available, the devices are being marketed over the Internet and through mail order services. Although those hearing aids may be less expensive than those offered by a local hearing aid expert, they may not be a bargain.
"Would you buy a pacemaker online," said Ralph Jacobs. "I don't think so."
Jacobs, a registered hearing aid specialist who is certified by the state Department of Health, said he performs hearing tests and fits people for their devices.
Mail order companies don't usually fit the device to the customer's needs or program it to his or her hearing loss., he said.
Companies that offer hearing aids in the mail may only deal with one manufacturer, said Jacobs who said he contracts with several manufacturers and offers devices that accommodate a person's needs from severe hearing loss as well as mid range to moderate hearing loss.
He said companies advertising on the Internet may not provide service. If someone purchases a product online and brings it to him to repair, he cannot help them, he said.
"If it has a warranty, I can't send it back," he said.
Jacobs said hearing aids need to be fitted and programmed for each individual. He said he sets parameters on the device to meet the individual's hearing loss.
He offers customers a 60-day trial, and if the devices don't work for them, they can get their money back.
"The goal is to help them and have them leave here happy," he said.
Lemme also addressed the importance of a proper fit and individual programming.
She compared buying hearing aids over the Internet to people buying over-the-counter reading glasses when their eyesight begins to change.
She said that action might work for a small percentage of people, but a thorough eye exam is needed to determine what type of sight problems the person is having so he or she can be fitted with glasses to meet specific needs.
An eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist would detect other possible issues, such a cataracts or glaucoma, she said.
In the same way, a hearing specialist is able to detect other health issues, such as a tumor, that may affect hearing.
She said individual ears are different, and the shape of the ear can block sound if the hearing aid is not fitted properly.
And while a hearing aid is programmed to meet the individual's needs, hearing loss is gradual and a hearing specialist is able to the necessary adjustments to the device over time.
Bundling or including the cost of office visits for adjustments and other services with the price of hearing aids also adds to the price of the devices. Lemme said without that service some people might put off a needed adjustment to avoid paying for an office visit.
Lemme said local hearing aid experts are available when problems arise.
Although she said she explains how to use and care for the devices, she said sometimes an individual needs a review, such as the person who was not sure how to install the batteries.
She said she also had a patient return about a week ago complaining that the hearing aid was not working.
"It was plugged with wax," she said.