Don't settle for a PSAP when you need a hearing aid
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014. We've updated it today due to its popularity and the recent developments with hearing healthcare and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
What’s that you say? Close to 20 percent of Americans — 48 million — report some degree of hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. Recently, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) cited hearing loss as a major health and social problem for older adults and said barriers such as high cost, lack of insurance coverage, social stigma and a lack of engagement by health providers were barriers to treatment.
Given those findings, it’s not surprising to learn that more and more individuals and their families are searching for hearing loss solutions online, where they can readily find information about hearing loss, hearing aids and other sound amplification options, such as personal sound amplification products (PSAP).
Unfortunately, hearing loss isn’t a condition that should be self-diagnosed or treated with less expensive over-the-counter devices. While PSAPs can seem more attractive than having your hearing loss diagnosed by a hearing healthcare professional and being custom fit with hearing aids, are they actually more cost-effective? And is your hearing health at risk if you wear them to address your hearing loss?
What is a PSAP?
A personal sound amplification product is a one-size-fits all electronic device that amplifies soft sounds. These devices are regulated by the FDA, yet aren’t designed to address hearing loss. Instead, PSAPs are intended for use by people with normal hearing ability who want to heighten their ability to hear for certain recreational activities (think hunting or bird watching).
PSAPs aren’t custom fit for your ears or your hearing loss; however, they do have some design similarities to a hearing aid. Both devices have:
- A microphone
- A loudspeaker
- An amplifier
- A battery-driven power supply
Some PSAPs also bear a resemblance to Bluetooth devices or earphones used with MP3 players, depending on the make and model.
But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike PSAPs, hearing aids are FDA-approved medical devices which are prescribed and fit by licensed hearing healthcare professionals. While PSAPs amplify sound, hearing aids use sophisticated algorithms to precisely divide sounds according to volume and pitch, making volume increases according to the individual’s hearing ability across all pitches. Simply amplifying sound is fine if you’re listening for a bird’s call in the middle of a forest, but not when you’re navigating complex sound environments such as conversation in a noisy restaurant.
What are the risks associated with PSAPs?
While the low cost of purchasing a PSAP may seem like the best way to address hearing loss, it can actually cost you money — and possibly your health — for a variety of reasons:
- Hearing aid sales are regulated by state laws which mandate a return period of at least 30 days, while PSAP sales are unregulated and may not have a money-back return policy.
- Hearing loss can be caused by a variety of problems, all of which should be evaluated by a licensed hearing healthcare professional. You may have excess wax build up which can be easily removed or a more emergent health problem, such as diabetes or heart disease. If you are not hearing well, please see your doctor.
- Hearing aid technology is designed to improve speech recognition, PSAPs are not. If you have purchased a PSAP thinking you’ll be able to understand the conversation better, it may only lead to more frustration and a negative perception of hearing devices.
- Most importantly, hearing aids have customized output limits to make sure sound is not delivered at a level high enough to cause further damage to already impaired hearing.
Why invest in a hearing aid?
Unlike PSAPs, hearing aids are sophisticated FDA-approved medical devices specifically designed to treat hearing loss. Hearing aid manufacturers are held to rigorous standards and employ highly-educated audiologists, engineers and scientists who conduct ongoing research in an effort to replicate natural sound. And, since hearing loss is unique to each individual, hearing aids are fit and programmed to your specific needs by educated individuals who are tested and licensed by their state. (You can’t get that online!)
While PSAPs are relatively simple electronic devices you can purchase over-the-counter, current hearing aid circuitry includes:
- Features for reducing background noise and improving speech recognition
- Multiple microphone arrays to provide directional enhancement and improve localization
- Wireless connectivity for accessing other personal devices
- Multiple programs to improve hearing ability according to the environment
If you think you might have hearing loss, find a hearing professional near you and get a complete hearing evaluation. Only they can determine why you aren’t hearing well and can help you decide which hearing device is the best for your hearing health, lifestyle and budget.