One in three U.S. adults with hearing problems don’t seek help

(Reuters Health) - Almost one-third of an estimated 40 million U.S. adults with hearing difficulties haven’t seen a specialist for help, a new study suggests.

Overall, about 17 percent of adults reported that their hearing was less than excellent or good in a national survey, the study found. But less than 28 percent of them got their hearing tested.

“There are a number of remedies for patients with hearing loss which can improve their quality of life,” said senior study author Dr. Neil Bhattacharyya of Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“But it is important that patients be identified and diagnosed in order to be treated,” Bhattacharyya said by email. “Undiagnosed or untreated hearing loss can cause physical and social frustration and can also lead to safety concerns like not being able to hear a car horn or other warning sounds.”

Bhattacharyya and colleagues examined 2014 data from a national survey of 36,690 adults, representing an estimated 239.6 million people. Survey participants were 47 years old on average.

Approximately 83 percent of participants rated their hearing as “excellent” or “good.”

Men were more likely to report hearing difficulties than women, researchers report in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

About 11 percent of people in the survey reported a “little trouble” hearing, while another 4 percent said they had “moderate trouble” and about 2 percent had “a lot of trouble.” Less than 1 percent of the survey participants were deaf.

Hearing background noise was a challenge at least half of the time for 21 percent of survey participants, the study also found.

Roughly 21 percent of people surveyed had seen a physician for hearing problems at least once in the past five years.

Lack of access and cost concerns may stop at least some people from getting help, said Samuel Atcherson, an audiology researcher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who wasn’t involved in the study.

“All across the board, there is lack of access (sometimes an otolaryngologist or audiologist (is) several hours away from their place of residence), lack of knowledge/awareness, and certainly there are financial constraints as well,” Atcherson said by email. “In general, hearing aids are not covered by third-party insurances, but implantable devices (such as cochlear implants) are often fully or partially covered by third-party insurances.”

Another challenge is that many primary care physicians may not be adequately screening patients or referring them to hearing specialists, said Colleen Le Prell, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Patients may need to be prepared to (ask) for referrals for audiological screening,” Le Prell said by email. “If an individual is having trouble hearing speech or other important sounds, or is having trouble understanding speech in quiet or in noise, audiological testing - including word recognition and speech-in-noise assessment - should be sought.”

Sometimes patients don’t want to seek help because they don’t think hearing aids will work even if they can manage to pay for them, said Dr. Jennifer Derebery of the House Ear Clinic and Institute and the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine.

“Patients associate hearing aids with dads or granddads, or say that they know a neighbor or relative who said hearing aids didn’t help, so they refuse to get them,” Derebery, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “They don’t know there are many sophisticated functions contemporary hearing aids can do, such as linking to blue tooth.”

SOURCE: JAMA Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery, online November 22, 2017.