Analysis by Andrew Van Dam
Staff writer|Washington Post
May 12, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Why are glasses more common than hearing aids?
In a previous column, we examined the ubiquity of eyeglasses. But we didn’t have time to address a follow-up question from reader Brenda Philips, who wanted to know why so many people wear glasses as opposed to hearing aids.
Another great question, Brenda! We owe you a bonus button.
For the record, yes: glasses far outpace hearing aids. Only 3 percent of American adults wear hearing aids, while almost two thirds of us wear glasses, according to our analysis of the National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Center for Health Statistics. And as with glasses, use of hearing aids ascends with age.
About 20 percent of Americans age 75 or older wear hearing aids, which are more prevalent among men (25 percent) than among women (15 percent). More educated folks are more likely to wear hearing aids, as are folks who earn more.
But the biggest gaps are racial. Among the 70-plus crowd, Whites are about twice as likely to have hearing aids as everybody else, and nearly four times as likely as Black Americans — 18 percent versus 5 percent.
But is it that Whites are more likely to lose their hearing, or just that they’re more likely to correct that loss? Both, actually!
Whites are twice as likely as their Black friends to say they’re having “moderate trouble” or “a lot of trouble” with their hearing — 22 percent versus 11 percent. And they’re almost twice as likely to get hearing aids — 57 percent versus 32 percent of those with hearing trouble.
Overall, hearing-aid use has risen in the past decade. Kristen Conners, audiologist and owner of Prescription Hearing in the sylvan suburb of Palos Park, south of Chicago, tells us that’s likely due to major technological advances which have made the devices far more comfortable and effective — and far less visible.
Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) appears to be less prevalent than age-related vision loss (presbyopia). But both are pervasive. It’s just that hearing loss will affect most of us while vision loss will affect basically all of us.
Which brings us back to Brenda’s question: why aren’t hearing aids more common?
When we asked Connors, she spoke with the weary, battle-scarred perspective of a professional who has spent three decades convincing people that, yes, their spouse is right: You really do have hearing difficulties. And yes, hearing aids would help.
“It’s not an impairment or disability that you see or feel,” Connors said. When your eyes start to go, you can perceive what you’re missing. A battery of blobs swim placidly where the menu used to be. But when your ears go — usually around age 65 — there’s little to cue you in to all the noises popping off around you.
“Your brain and body just adapts or adjusts,” Connors told us. “The person who has the hearing loss doesn’t realize it at first.” It often takes the outside perspective of a spouse or child to point out they’re missing anything at all.
Hearing aids are also freighted with stigma, Connors said. About half of young adults wear spectacles, which can imbue some frames with an aura of hipness. But despite their recent high-tech makeover, hearing aids retain an only-for-old-folks stigma.