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Did Your Hearing Aid Cost More Than Dad's Car?


If youve been shopping around for your first (or fifth) hearing aid, prepare for a bit of sticker shock. Even the basic, stripped down models will set you back $1500 and thats per ear! Want to pop for the big bucks and a hearing aid with options galore? Think $8K an ear, but youll look cool.

How about aids in colors like sunset orange or leopard? Or branded aids that carry with them the cachet of a Steinway piano? Theyre available, too, adding a touch of status to what was once considered a clunky piece of hardware that only old geeks wore. Dag nabbit!

But Grandpas hearing aid only cost $300!
Part of the reason hearing aids seem expensive is that consumers are comparing apples to oranges. Hey, everything cost less 40 years ago and hearing aids are no exception. Sure, back in the 60s (anyone remember the 60s?) you could pick up a hearing aid the size of a deck of cards a device that spewed feedback and randomly-generated noise directly into the ear canal, was connected by wires from shirt pocket to ear piece and looked like a major piece of hardware dangling from the ear. But that was then. This is now.

So, part of the problem is plain old inflation. For you kids out there, you could buy a house for $8,000 in 1960. A whole house! So, inflation, which hits everything, hit house and hearing aid prices. But thats just part of the reason hearing devices increased so much in price. When adjusted for inflation, the cost of hearing aids has actually decreased over the last 40 years. According to Dr. Amyn M. Amlani, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of North Texas, the same device that sold for $350 in 1960 would set you back about $2,400 today. Lets face it, a buck aint what it used to be.

Then Theres the Cost of Technology
In 1960, you could buy a brand new VW Beetle for around $1700. Of course, the heating system only worked in the summer, there werent any seat belts and the motor was the size of a sewing machine (ran like one, too).

Today, a new VW Bug will set you back about $16,000 for starters and when you start throwing in a sunroof, CD disc changer and other goodies, you could be looking at $20,000. The thing is, todays VW Bug has more features (mandated or otherwise) and the darned heater works. Technology marches on.

Same is true of hearing devices. Back in the day when John, Paul, George and Ringo were packing stadiums, hearing aids were nothing more than amplifiers a user stuck in his or her ear. The technology was analog (went out about the time the Beatles broke up) and every sound was amplified, whether a babys whisper or Shea Stadium with a crowd of SCREAMING Beatles fans. It all got an equal sound boost. The users choices? 1-10, 1 being the lowest volume, 10 the loudest. Oh, and they were ugly, too boot. Still technology marches on.

The Hearing Ear Computer
Aint like it used to be. Todays hearing devices are modern marvels of digital technology devices that deliver a more natural hearing experience, more user-controlled options, more comfort and a wider assortment of styles from BTE, behind the ear units to ITC units that are completely invisible because theyre worn In The Canal or ITC.

Hearing aids are micro-computers capable of detecting ambient sound levels and adjusting themselves accordingly. Other features include multiple settings memory, directional microphones, background noise cancellation, the elimination of feedback even when the user is talking on the telephone, wireless capabilities and a host of other automated convenience features so users arent constantly adjusting their hearing amplifiers.

As Dr. Amlani explains, The bottom line is that the retail price of hearing aids today, which are more advanced than those of the past, are actually slightly less expensive than the rate at which inflation has increased.

Yeah, and they look a whole lot better, too.

Cost Factors (Other than Inflation and Improved Technology)
Okay, so maybe that information takes a little of the sting out of your first hearing aid purchase but ouch thats still a lot of money! Several factors affect the cost of todays ear computer including:

  • Low number of users (if we all wore them, theyd cost less per unit)
  • Customization of the each device to fit the needs of the user
  • Manufacturing processes (were talking teeny parts, here)
  • Research costs (naturally)
  • Time spent with your audiologist

Lets look at each one of these factors individually.

Low number of users
The hearing-aid industry operates in a high-tech, low-volume marketplace. Only 2% of the U.S. population uses hearing aids. So, while your hearing aid may use some of the same technology as an iPod, for example, 14 million iPods were sold during the holiday season alone. Compare this to the total number of hearing aid users in the United States only two million. With increased volume of sales, manufacturers could lower the per unit price.

Customization of the device
The days of popping in some batteries, plugging the earpiece into the ear and off you go are long gone. Today, hearing aids come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. That means that if you opt for an ITC unit, the audiologist has to make an impression of your ear canal that gets sent off to the manufacturer where your unit is custom built by a highly-trained technician to the specifications of the audiologist. Custom hearing aids are built individually by hand, with up to 50 people involved. In fact, in can dozens and dozens of people to build each unit by hand, much of the work taking place under a microscope. Thats a lot of specially-trained people all working on a device that fits completely into a human ear canal and delivers natural sound and the convenience of automation. Just plug yourself in and rock on.

Research and manufacturing costs
Hearing-aid manufacturers spend millions and millions of dollars on the development of new and better models of hearing aids. Its a highly competitive marketplace so keeping up with the competition is critical to long-term company success.

In addition, new hearing aids undergo rigorous laboratory and field-testing by the manufacturers to ensure that they do what theyre supposed to do. The good news? Manufacturers are able to provide warranties for both new and repaired devices.

Then theres your audiologist
A professional audiologist is crucial to the successful choice and fitting of a patients hearing aid. These hearing health professionals conduct hearing tests, take ear impressions, select and fit the hearing aids, adjust hearing aid settings, and clean and maintain hearing aids. Audiologists also have to stay current on new products and the continued advances in technology. Without this ongoing training, said Dr. Amlani, they may not be able to provide their patients with the best hearing healthcare.

Money-saving tips
You may want to think twice about cutting corners on a hearing device. Were not talking about a toaster, now. This is a high-tech device that, unlike a toaster, will improve the quality of your life and those who have to watch the TV with you. Yes, its a big number but the payoff is much improved, hassle-free hearing. However, there are some steps to keep costs under control.

The most important differences between the low-cost unit and the super-deluxe designer model are the number of features you get. Dont need the features? Dont pay for it.

Important features include:

  • number of channels (how much sound information can the unit process)
  • noise reduction technology (eliminates distracting background noise)
  • integration with wireless technologies such as Bluetooth (increases convenience and functionality within different sound environments)
  • automated controls (makes life so much simpler)
  • directional microphones (hear the speaker, not the conversation two tables over)
  • style and cachet (think of todays hearing aid as ear bling)

Quality performance costs more. Better hearing aids make adjustments to sound 1000 times a second to provide that natural listening experience wearers want!

But what if the price is still too high?
No sweat. Even the lower priced models come with plenty of convenience features. If a top-of-the-line hearing aid blows the budget, Dr. Amlani suggests choosing an economy model that has these three critical features:

  • Directional microphone (filters out background noise)
  • Multiple memories so you can quickly adjust your hearing aid for different environments, such as work, home, outdoors or noisy restaurant.
  • Telecoil technology to directly couple your hearing aid with todays audio sources such as the TV and telephones. (Telecoil tech eliminates background noise, cuts out annoying (and painful) feedback and improves the quality of sound

Your audiologist can help you select the best hearing aid for your budget. And while the initial cost of a hearing aid may give you pause, this is a quality of life matter for you and those around you.

So get yourself plugged in with the best hearing device the budget will allow. Youll be glad you spent a little extra for the convenience and quality todays hearing aids deliver.

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