Hearing Specialists Seeing Growth
Lebanon — New technology, widening medical evidence and an aging population are driving sales of hearing aids worldwide, and the Upper Valley, with five outlets in the Lebanon area alone, seems poised to meet the growing demand.
Hearing aid specialist Chris Gulick opened the Upper Valley’s newest store last week in Lebanon, entering a growing market driven by aging baby boomers who, in their younger years, listened to loud music, hunted with shotguns and worked before OSHA required ear plugs.
Even during the past few years of recession, hearing aid manufacturers have reported steady annual growth, and with U.S. baby boomers starting to turn 65 in 2011 at an estimated rate of 8,000 to 10,000 a day, the industry has a growing base of customers.
“We haven’t seen a peak in business in the last year (because of the baby boomers), but we’re staying busy, and it’s not surprising that there’s an increase in hearing aid sales,” said audiologist Julie Johnson, clinical coordinator for adult audiology for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“Baby boomers are getting older, and they are much more techy than previous generations. Hearing aids are much better and much more technologically advanced — able to do things that they couldn’t before — and that appeals to baby boomers,” Johnson said.
Not only has the technology evolved to be less visible, to reduce ambient noise and remove the stigmatizing hearing aid squeal, but devices also can communicate with smart phones, tap into such public sound systems as those used in movie theaters and can signal the other ear to make sure what the wearer is hearing is in stereo.
“They’re coming up with new stuff every year,” Johnson said, adding that new technology in testing equipment and the types of exams also have improved the quality of hearing for people wearing devices.
Approximately 17 percent of American adults, 36 million, report some degree of hearing loss, and there’s a strong relationship between age and reported hearing loss: 18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing impairment, the National Institutes of Health says.
The NIH estimates that 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69, or about 26 million people, have high-frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds or noise at work or in leisure activities.
In addition to improved technology, hearing aid sales also may be picking up because of an increasing body of medical evidence showing that age-related hearing loss increases isolation and can lead to significantly diminished quality of life. The studies are prompting more doctors to take notice and recommend hearing tests.
The manifestations of age-related hearing loss are often subtle — having to turn up the TV volume, not being able to hear higher pitched voices of women and children and generally missing words in conversations — and are just accepted as a part of aging, said Dr. Frank R. Lin, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in an article published last year by the American Medical Association.
The observations are borne out by evidence that although millions U.S. adults 50 and older have clinically diagnosed hearing loss, less than 15 percent use hearing aids, Lin said in the article.
And medical studies are finding that those with age-related hearing loss have a higher rate of diminished cognitive function and are three to five times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing, Lin said.
Baby boomers haven’t yet started rushing in to buy hearing aids, but sales at Upper Valley stores have been slowly increasing each year, owners and managers said.
“About half our sales to seniors are to new customers — people who haven’t had hearing aids before — and the other half is to people who are upgrading to new technology,” said James McGonial, the owner of Dartmouth Hearing Aids in West Lebanon.
McGonial has been open in West Lebanon since 1989 and in Springfield, Vt., three years before that. He’s seen a lot of changes in the business and has gone from being one of a few providers in the Upper Valley to having ample local competition, he said.
“For 10 years, I was the only one here, except for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but we really haven’t seen any drop in business recently with the competition, except a little drop off during the recession. We’ve been increasing moderately, and we’re getting back (to prior to 2008),” McGonial said.
Gulick, who has a degree in business administration and has more than three years of experience as a hearing instrument specialist, opened Aria Hearing at 27 Bank St. last week.
“I think the timing is really good. The business is growing with a lot of people getting older,” she said.
National figures are supportive of growth in hearing aid sales.
Manufacturers reported that more than 2.1 million units sold in the first three-quarters of last year, which was a 3 percent increase over the same nine months the previous year. Sales in 2011 were up 2.8 percent, totaling more than 2.2 million units and about $5.7 billion, according to statistics released recently by the Hearing Industries Association, a Washington, D.C., trade association.
And overall sales are expected to hit $8 billion by 2018 with the growth of new technology, a study by iData Research, a medical device research group, shows.
“Our business is good, and we’re optimistic about the future. The population is aging, and they’re going to need hearing aids,” said Michael Bartolucci, the Northeast regional director for Avada Hearing Care Centers, which has a store in West Lebanon.
Like retailers in other fields, Upper Valley hearing aid stores also are getting competition from the Internet, where less expensive new and used devices are offered.
“We’ve had some people ask us if they buy hearing aids on the Internet will we fit them,” DHMC’s Johnson said.
That often doesn’t work, and she cautioned that buying Internet devices might end up costing more than going to a local, licensed provider and being properly tested and fitted for a hearing aid designed for the person wearing it.
“People need a thorough exam and to have hearing aids fit properly,” she said.
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.