Don't believe celebrity endorsements

We hear a lot lately about the aging of the Baby Boom generation, usually in the context of the strain all those old boomers are putting on Social Security and Medicare. But the rapid aging of the American population is good news for lots of industries, including those who make wheelchairs, bifocals and hearing aids.

While not everyone falls into a wheelchair when they hit their 60s, even the healthiest older adults are likely to experience at least some hearing loss, especially those who spent too much time at rock concerts or at the race track in their youth.

There are all kinds of hearing loss associated with aging. Some can be corrected. Some can't. Nearly everyone can be helped by a hearing aid of some kind, however, and this simple fact has opened the door to a massive blitz of advertising by a few manufacturers, with Miracle Ear perhaps the best-known.

Most Miracle Ear ads, whether on television, the Web or in print, will urge you to immediately call a toll-free number or schedule an appointment at a nearby store to have your hearing tested.

This is not, however, an approach endorsed by anyone but hearing aid salesmen.

What to do

What should you do if you're beginning to have trouble hearing?

As with any health question, the first step should be diagnosis – finding out why your hearing is causing you problems. Once that's done, you can move on to finding the right treatment, which may or may not be a hearing aid.

The place to start is with an ENT – an ear, nose and throat specialist, also known as an otolaryngologist, preferably one who has an audiologist on staff. You can find ENTs in your area by typing "otolaryngologist" into your search engine. If you are part of an HMO or covered by the Veterans Administration, there should be staff ENTs available to you.

After an examination and hearing test, the ENT should be able to prescribe an appropriate treatment. If that treatment is a hearing aid, ask the ENT to be as specific as possible about what type of hearing aid you should get. You don't need a prescription to buy a hearing aid but it doesn't hurt to take notes or ask the ENT to jot down a few specifics.

Some ENTs sell hearing aids in their office. While this may be a good approach, it is also likely to be expensive.

It's important to note that Medicare does not cover hearing aids, although your ENT visit may be covered. Most private health plans don't either. Find out what your plan covers before you start shopping. Don't rely on what a salesman tells you or what a celebrity says on a TV ad.

Shop around

Once you know what type of hearing aid you're looking for, shop around. Be an aggressive consumer. Hearing aids are expensive – as much as $7,000 -- and you don't want to spend a lot of money on something that doesn't work well or that you won't use.

It's a good idea to check specific brand names in online databases. For example, you'll find a very long page of Miracle Ear complaints on, as well as complaints and comments on other popular brands.

All states require that you have a try-out period, usually 30 to 45 days, during which you can try the device. If it doesn't work for you, take it back. Be certain to get this in writing before you pay and be sure you understand the written agreement.

As always, the sale is governed by the law in your state and, secondly, by any additional terms in the written sales agreement. Oral promises mean nothing. If a promise isn't in writing, it doesn't exist.

Be aware that the average mark-up on a hearing aid is 100%. This means you have plenty of room to bargain. If the person you're dealing with uses high-pressure tactics or won't offer you any kind of discount, go somewhere else.

As always, you should separate the financing from the purchase. Any purchase plan offered by the hearing aid dealer is likely to be very expensive. If you can't pay cash, it's better to get a loan from your credit union or bank.

Don't overlook the potential tax benefit. The cost of hearing tests, ear exams and the hearing aid itself may be included as expenses on your tax return, according to the Internal Revenue Service. This is potentially a big purchase and a tax break is likely to be welcome.

Be patient

Don't expect the device to work for you right away. It's not just your ears that hear, it's also your brain. Just as it takes your brain time to adjust to a new pair of glasses or contacts, it will take your brain time to reinterpret the new input it's getting from the hearing aid. It may well take a month or more for you to be able to understand speech clearly again.

To be a success, the hearing aid must also be comfortable. If it is annoying, doesn't fit or slips out of position constantly, it will end up in your dresser drawer.