The Damaging Message of "Invisible Hearing Aids"

Those ads are telling us that hearing aids are shameful.

Posted Nov 02, 2015

The ads call them “invisible hearing aids,” describing them as “discreet,” “well-hidden” and “virtually undetectable.”

Perhaps that sounds appealing, but it also sends an unintended and damaging message: Hearing aids are shameful and something to be hidden. You might as well wear a bag over your head.

The ads also reinforce the notion that wearing hearing aids trumpets the fact that you’re old. Which is silly, as audiologist Mark Ross wrote in a recent column for hearingresearch.org, because “rejecting a hearing aid is no way to recapture one’s youth. As a matter of fact, well-fitted hearing aids, because of the way they will improve communication efficiency, can help one function in an apparently more youthful manner.”

Some hearing aids are invisible, but that’s not the reason to buy them. Buy them because they’re the right type for you: The sound quality is good. They’re comfortable. The smaller ones tend to be easier to wear without the tight fit of a larger device.

If they’re open-fit hearing aids (with a loose-fitting dome in the ear canal), they allow sound waves to reach the cochlea, which makes for more natural sound. They’re also the most common hearing aid style for people with mild to severe loss and are available in all brands.

If you’re really set on an invisible hearing aid, however, it’s available — at a price.

Hearing aids that fit deep in the ear canal, referred to as CICs — completely in the canal — are the most expensive style available. They are generally too small for a telecoil, so you can’t take advantage of technologies like looping, but some people like the sound quality better. Various manufacturers and brands market this style.

There are two brands of invisible hearing aids that are actually implanted, meaning you never remove them.

The Lyric, made by Phonak, is placed deep in the ear canal by an audiologist. When the battery goes, after two to four months, you go back to the audiologist to have it replaced. You don’t buy the hearing aid per se, you buy a subscription that covers audiologist visits and replacement parts.

Another newer model is the Esteem, made by Envoy. It is inserted surgically into the middle ear and the battery should last for 4½ to nine years, according to the manufacturer. It offers invisibility — and an eye-popping price tag of $30,000. Even though Envoy calls it an implant, the Food and Drug Administration still considers it a hearing aid. For that reason, it is not covered by Medicare or most other insurance plans

Ironically, those of us with our large, very visible cochlear implants are much more open about them — maybe because they’re considered fashionably high-tech. “Cool,” said a man I know when I told him I was getting one. (I guess it does make me part cyborg.) One woman I met even made hers into a fashion statement with a black sequin-studded earpiece.

In other words, I’m all for making hearing aids more visible. Let’s do colors and patterns and sequins. Let’s make hearing aids ear jewelry. Let’s make them chic or amusing or a symbol of power. That way everyone will want to wear them.

This post first appeared in a different form on AARP Health. 10/7/15