What does television volume have to do with dementia? More than you probably think...
It turns out that hearing loss, if not diagnosed and addressed with things like hearing aids, contributes to the development of dementia.
We've kept an eye on the research in this field and recently featured it in my monthly newsletter, Retirement Millionaire. It's a topic everyone – regardless of age – needs to understand.
And I say any age because younger folks now face more hearing loss. A 2010 study in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that kids ages 12 to 19 suffer, too. Between 1988 and 1994, hearing loss happened to about 15% of these kids. But between 2005 and 2006, it was already up to more than 19%.
And it's not just the kids who are affected. About 30% of folks over 60 have some hearing loss, 14.6% of Baby Boomers have some, and now 7.4% of Generation X has it, too (that's folks born from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s).
We need to focus on this problem because hearing loss puts stress on our brains and leads to things like social isolation and loneliness (which we've mentioned as contributing factors in dementia).
First, when we can't hear well, our brains work too hard to try and understand speech. A functional MRI study from Ohio State University demonstrated that folks with mild hearing loss had greater brain activity. More of their brains had to work harder to hear and make sense of speech.
The researchers believe this overworking of the brain contributes to dementia... You're putting too much stress on a part of the brain not designed to work with hearing. It's different from brain-training exercises that target specific parts of the brain to prevent decline.
Second, decreased social engagement is easy to understand. It's frustrating and embarrassing to ask people to repeat themselves. Eventually it's just easier to stop going to restaurants, festivals, exercise classes, and more.
The problem... social isolation leads to early death. Researchers from Brigham Young University found that loneliness and social isolation increase your risk of early death by as much as 45%. What's more, lack of socialization also contributes to cognitive decline. That's why staying engaged and active as we age is so important for keeping our minds sharp.
So, if you notice your television volume creeping up (or your kids complaining about how loud it is), you should have a hearing exam. Similarly, if conversations at restaurants become impossible to follow or you stop going out with friends because it's too hard to hear in public areas, make an appointment as soon as you can.
Here's the kicker... Hearing aids are expensive. They can range anywhere from $500 to $3,500 for a single unit (double if you need one for each ear!). According to Consumer Reports, the average consumer spends about $2,700 out of pocket on these devices. So how can you fund those costs, especially if you need to replace hearing aids in a few years?
For starters, Medicare won't cover the cost. Medicare Part B does cover the cost of an exam, but only if it's for another medical condition other than hearing loss. So, something like vertigo might qualify for an ear exam.
However, some Medicare Advantage plans, which you might hear called "Part C," include hearing expenses. Medicare Advantage plans operate through private insurance and typically offer everything that Part A and Part B cover, plus some extras. Depending on your plan, that might include some vision, dental, and even hearing costs. If you have one of these plans, check to see what they cover.
Both flexible spending accounts ("FSAs") and health savings accounts ("HSAs") allow you to use your funds for hearing aids and batteries. Remember, you fund these plans with pre-tax dollars. You can then use these accounts for eligible health costs, tax-free. The key difference is that an FSA doesn't carry funds over at the end of the year, while an HSA does.
This is one reason we recommend keeping an HSA account. You can also invest the funds after a certain level of deposits, so you can see your savings grow. What's more, after age 65 you can withdraw funds for any reason and simply pay tax (covered health care reasons are still tax free).
Private insurance carriers typically don't cover hearing aids. But three states mandate coverage – Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Some federal insurance providers also provide coverage for a basic hearing aid.
Another overlooked option – clubs and memberships. You might know about discounts offered through places like AARP, but other groups also have deals in place. For instance, my researcher has a membership with the Order of the Sons of Italy. That makes her eligible for discounts and free exams through American Hearing Benefits. We've also seen reports from groups like the Lions Club and Kiwanis Club that may offer local members help with hearing aids.
Finally, a survey through Consumer Reports found that about 15% of folks purchased their hearing aids at big-box retailer Costco. In fact, Costco currently has an offer for a pair of behind-the-ear aids for $1,600. In the survey, both Costco and Connect Hearing, which is another chain of retailers, got the best scores for customer satisfaction.
Don't delay in getting your hearing checked. Your health and well-being depend on it. I urge my current subscribers to read more about it in Retirement Millionaire, by clicking here. If you don't have a subscription, start one today to receive monthly issues filled with great financial and health advice.
And if you do need a hearing aid, investigate all of your financing options for the best deal. Have another tip for saving on hearing aids? Send it in to us at [email protected].
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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 3, 2018