Getting older comes with many challenges. Vision isn’t as clear as it used to be. Joints don’t move as effortlessly, or as painlessly, as they once did. And hearing everything from conversations to concerts can become more difficult. By age 65, one in three of us will have more trouble hearing the sounds around us. By age 75, that percentage jumps to nearly half.While we’ll wear glasses to read and take NSAIDs to ease our joint pain, many of us are reluctant to wear hearing aids to catch the sounds we’re missing. Only 25 percent of people who need hearing aids actually own them.
While hearing aids won’t restore damage to the inner ear, “they substantially reduce the work of hearing if you wear them constantly,” says Dr. Chris Halpin, clinical associate in the Department of Audiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and associate professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School.
“If you’re having trouble hearing people talking and you’re really having to work hard at it, you should get an evaluation to see why that is, and whether you need a hearing aid,” Dr. Halpin says.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 per hearing aid, depending on the style and features you choose. Also factor in the costs of batteries and getting your hearing aid serviced. Don’t expect your insurance company to pick up the cost. Medicare and most private insurance companies consider hearing aids elective, and therefore won’t pay for them.
If you can’t afford hearing aids, there are organizations that can help, including the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s Hear Now program; go online tohttp://www.starkeyhearingfoundation.org/programs/hear-now or call 800-328-8602.
YOUR HEARING EVALUATION
Begin with a visit to an otolaryngologist, who will examine you to rule out conditions or medications that can cause hearing loss. If a medical condition isn’t to blame, you’ll then see an audiologist, a specialist who diagnoses and treats hearing loss. The audiologist will ask you about your hearing history: when the problem began, who else in your family has hearing loss, and whether you have symptoms like pain or ringing in your ears.
Then you’ll undergo a hearing test in a sound booth wearing headphones. You’ll hear a variety of beeping sounds. The audiologist will ask you to raise a finger to signal that you’ve heard the sounds. Another test will check your ability to recognize speech. These tests can identify whether you’ll benefit from using a hearing aid, and help the audiologist customize it to your type and degree of hearing loss.
CHOOSING A HEARING AID
Like any technology–from cars to computers–hearing aids come in a range of models and prices. You can pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But unlike buying a luxury car or top-of-the-line laptop, you won’t necessarily get better performance at a higher price point.
“What you want to do is cut through the marketing and ask, ‘Do I hear well through this?'” says Dr. Halpin. “Put it on your ear, turn it up loud, and ask, ‘Do I like this?’ That’s what you’re after. The fanciness is not that important.”
In fact, one of the most important features on a hearing aid is also the most basic: the volume control. Buying a hearing aid without a volume control is like buying a TV without one, Dr. Halpin says. Yet many of the smallest hearing aids offer no way to adjust the sound level.
When you try out a hearing aid, the volume should go up louder than you’d want to wear it, but before it starts whistling. Getting a hearing aid that’s louder than you think you need will allow you to hear things you haven’t heard in a long time, like an actor on stage at a theater.
Once you’ve found a model you like, your audiologist will fine-tune it by programming in your needs. For example, you might prefer a softer, tinnier sound or a louder, deeper sound.
Along with your hearing aid, or in lieu of it, are other technologies that can improve your ability to hear. When you go to a play or concert, check to see if the venue offers a receiver or headset, which will deliver the sound of the performers directly without background noise.
You can also buy special headphones to help you hear the TV at home more clearly without having to turn the volume up full blast. There are devices that can connect your hearing aid to your cell phone to boost sound and reduce distortion. To learn more about hearing assistive technologies, see the online guide from the Hearing Loss Association of America:http://www.hearingloss.org/content/hearing-assistive-technology.
GETTING THE MOST FROM YOUR HEARING AID
Once you have a hearing aid (or aids), here are a few ways to further enhance your ability to hear:
1. Wear them. Hearing aids won’t help if you leave them sitting in a drawer. Don’t just wear your hearing aids for special occasions–put them on every day.
2. Recruit family and friends. Tell people around you that you want to understand them, and for that to happen, they need to face you when speaking and avoid yelling. Ideally, try to hold conversations in a quiet room where background noise is not a distraction.
3. Fix issues. See your audiologist if you have problems with your hearing aid–like a whistling or buzzing noise, or discomfort.
THE FUTURE OF HEARING LOSS TECHNOLOGY
Even the best hearing aid available today can’t restore lost hearing. It can only amplify sound. The turning point in the treatment of hearing loss could come from the ability to re-grow the hair cells in the ear that pick up sounds and send them to the brain for processing.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School announced in June 2013 that they’ve been able to regenerate damaged hair cells in the ears of mice, restoring at least partial hearing in the process.
“There’s a known set of frequencies that are important for speech, and if you could regenerate even a small patch in that area you’d get a giant jump in recognition,” Dr. Halpin says.
There’s no telling when researchers might be able to successfully regenerate these hair cells in humans, or whether the therapy would constitute a cure for that type of hearing loss. Until hearing loss research turns this important corner, the best way to ensure better hearing is to get fitted for the right hearing aid and to wear it every day. – Harvard Women’s Health Watch
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