Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Are Attracting Young Users

Ayla Wing’s middle school students don’t always know what to make of their 26-year-old teacher’s hearing aids. The most common response she hears: “Oh, my grandma has them, too.”

But grandma’s hearing aids were never like this: Bluetooth-enabled and connected to her phone, they allow Ms. Wing to toggle with one touch between custom settings. She can shut out the world during a screeching subway ride, hear her friends in noisy bars during a night out and even understand her students better by switching to “mumbly kids.”

A raft of new hearing aids have hit the market in recent years, offering greater appeal to a generation of young adults that some experts say is both developing hearing problems earlier in life and — perhaps paradoxically — becoming more comfortable with an expensive piece of technology pumping sound into their ears.

Some of the new models, including Ms. Wing’s, are made by traditional prescription brands, which usually require a visit to a specialist. But the Food and Drug Administration opened up the market last year when it allowed the sale of hearing aids over the counter. In response, brand names like Sony and Jabra began releasing their own products, adding to the new wave of designs and features that appeal to young consumers.

“These new hearing aids are sexy,” said Pete Bilzerian, a 25-year-old in Richmond, Va., who has worn the devices since he was 7. He describes his early models as distinctly unsexy: “big, funky, tan-colored hearing aids with the molding that goes all around the ear.” But increasingly, those have given way to sleeker, smaller models with more technological capabilities.

Nowadays, he said, no one seems to notice the electronics in his ear. “If it ever does come up as a topic, I just brush it off and say, ‘Hey, I got these very expensive AirPods.’”

More people in Mr. Bilzerian’s age group might need the equivalent of expensive AirPods, experts say. By the time they turn 30, about a fifth of Americans today have had their hearing damaged by noise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated. This number adds to the already substantial population of young people with hearing loss tied to genetics or medical conditions.

The exact number of young adults who need or use hearing aids is difficult to pinpoint, but both device manufacturers and medical experts say that population is growing. The leading prescription aid manufacturer, Phonak, says the number of Americans between the ages of 22 and 54 who have been fitted with the company’s hearing aids increased by 14 percent more than the increase for users of all other ages between 2017 and 2021.

“Anecdotally, we have seen more young people over the past decade pursuing hearing protection. This seems to be much more mainstream, which is great,” said Dr. Catherine V. Palmer, director of Audiology and Hearing Aids at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Children’s Hospital.

Experts say there are several reasons that hearing aids are closing the generation gap. Attitudes have changed as technology has advanced, leading more young people to be willing to give them a try. And a growing number of 20-somethings may need them as they navigate an increasingly noise-soaked world; more than a billion young people worldwide risk noise-induced hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization.

But there are still significant barriers: Hearing aids are expensive — especially for people who lack good medical insurance — with most costing $1,000 or more. And the options can be confusing and difficult to navigate; many models still have to be prescribed by an audiologist. And while the stigma might be fading, it has not entirely vanished.

Data collected in 1989 by MarkeTrak, a consumer research organization that is part of the Hearing Industries of America, suggested that people who wore hearing aids “were perceived to be less competent, less attractive, less youthful and more disabled.” Today, though, the organization said in a recent report, hearing aid users “rarely or never feel embarrassed or rejected.”

While the emergence of over-the-counter hearing aids has provided new options, it has also made diving into the market more complicated. There are dozens of brands to choose from, ranging from small, in-ear pods to those that use long metallic arcs around the ear. Most new models have Bluetooth streaming capacities. And some of the over-the-counter options can even be ordered online with free shipping.

Blake Cadwell created Soundly, a website that allows users to compare hearing aid brands and prices, after trying to navigate the complex market himself.

“When I started the process, the main thing I experienced was it’s difficult to know where to start and how to start, just figuring out which way was up,” said Mr. Cadwell, 32, who lives in Los Angeles.

Even just getting a diagnosis for hearing loss can be hard. People who are concerned about their hearing might start at an ear, nose and throat specialist, and many are referred to audiologists or hearing clinics, where they face a mix of hearing tests, physical exams or imaging.

Juliann Zhou, a 22-year-old international student at New York University, was motivated to get her ears checked after being disturbed by an intense ringing, which was diagnosed as tinnitus from moderate hearing loss. Still, she has not been sold on hearing aids. An audiologist in the United States recommended them, but her parents and their family doctor in China told her they were “only for old people.”

“I just don’t know if it’s necessary,” she said.

Ms. Zhou says she “probably listened to music too loud,” causing her hearing issues. That’s an increasingly common concern, according to the Hearing Loss Association, which has called noise-induced hearing loss a growing public health crisis.

Though long-term tracking data is not available, the association estimates that 12.5 percent of Americans between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss as a result of listening to loud music, particularly through earbuds at unsafe volumes.

For those who need them, the new wave of over-the-counter aids can be more affordable than many prescription models. That makes them a good first choice for more young people, said Zina Jawadi, 26, who has used hearing aids since she was 4 and attends medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“This is one of the biggest things I’ve seen in a really long time in this space,” she said.

Ms. Wing, the middle school teacher, said she decided to buy her new hearing aids just months before she would turn 26 and lose access to her parents’ health insurance plan. Otherwise, the $4,000 prescription hearing aids would have been unaffordable, she said.

Ms. Wing worried about the durability and effectiveness of over-the-counter aids, compared with her prescription pair, which she expects to last at least five years.

“I wear glasses too, and I can’t just get reading glasses from CVS — I have to get them from the eye doctor,” she said. “It’s the same with my hearing aids.”

Ms. Wing said she had many co-workers in their 40s and 50s who could probably benefit from hearing aids but are worried about negative perceptions. She tries to dispel that.

“I tell everyone that I know that I have hearing aids,” Ms. Wing said, “just so that the stigma is less.”