If you are of a ‘certain age’ you may be having some trouble with hearing
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Everyone should have a baseline hearing evaluation.
But after this point, some signs can indicate that you could benefit from another evaluation.
Sometimes, a hearing loss could indicate an acute, treatable problem. Other times, hearing loss could mean that a hearing instrument could improve quality of life and communication.
Craig Chorney, licensed audiologist with Beltone Hearing Care in Liverpool and Fayetteville, said the most common sign someone needs a hearing evaluation is that “others ‘seem to mumble’ more frequently,” he said.
“They may also experience ringing in the ears and ask people to repeat themselves. The family may say the radio or TV is too loud. They can’t hear normal household sounds, like the tea kettle whistling or microwave beeping. They may not understand words in the conversation. It’s particularly difficult when there’s a large group and any kind of background noise. They also have difficulty on the telephone. They may be told they speak too loudly.”
Challenges with hearing does not always mean hearing aids are necessary. A build-up of wax in the ear could also contribute to muffled hearing. That is why Chorney performs an examination that includes screening for other possible issues.
Audiologists who discover the likelihood of a medical reason for hearing impairment refer patients to an otolaryngologist or physician for further treatment.
Hearing loss is more than an annoyance or quality of life issue. Chorney said that people with untreated hearing loss have a greater chance of falling. Because of the diminished auditory stimulation, those with a mild untreated hearing loss have a higher likelihood of developing dementia.
Although the risk of hearing loss increases with age, people of any age can experience hearing loss. Factory work, serving in the military, playing loud music or engaging in loud hobbies like working with power tools or shooting firearms can increase the risk of gradual hearing loss. Anyone with abrupt hearing loss should seek immediate medical attention.
“We always tell them what we’ll be doing ahead of time,” Chorney said about hearing examinations. “They may have insurance to cover hearing aids. We can check their insurance. Some have significant coverage, others don’t.”
He encourages anyone coming in for a hearing examination to bring along someone else, such as a spouse or sibling, who may be able to share additional information.
“It’s part of the testing process to see how well they can hear a familiar voice,” Chorney said. “That’s helpful.”
The examination is painless and, for most providers, free of charge.
If hearing aids are in order, the audiologist would write a prescription for them.
High tech aids
Hearing aids have come a long way since the bulky, taupe colored hearing aids of a generation ago. Today’s top-of-the-line models are Bluetooth-enabled to allow them to tune into Smart TVs and cellphones. They can cost a few thousand dollars. However, the improvement they offer is unparalleled.
It may seem a good option to select an inexpensive over-the-counter amplifier. However, people should have a hearing exam, according to Clayton Andrews, licensed hearing aid dispenser and nationally board-certified in hearing instrument sciences at Upstate Hearing Solutions in Oswego.
“We wouldn’t know if it’s a wax blockage or an ear bone gap,” Andrews said. “The hearing aid is specific to their hearing loss so an over-the-counter device could over-amplify and in theory, cause more hearing damage.”
Amplifiers often do not fit properly and in the cases of moderate to severe hearing loss, will not help. Amplifiers are used for situations such as hunting but not for general hearing loss.
“Relying on amplifiers too long may make it hard to transition to hearing aids eventually,” Andrews said. “Adaption to a prescription hearing aid is you really hearing with your brain. The ear is a mechanism to get the sound to the brain. The brain won’t be stimulated in that area. It can lead to time lost with family, balance issue and all types of things. It’s a loss that should be treated early rather than later. It’s lost quality of life.”
Another difference between over-the-counter amplifiers and prescribed hearing instruments is that the latter are both input and output devices. Commonplace electronics are just output devices.
Instead of an audio engineer at a soundboard perfecting the sound that goes through a phone or iPad, a hearing aid does this on the fly.
Amplifiers simply make all sound around the person louder but cannot determine which sounds are desirable so that less desirable sounds are not the focus. Modern hearing aids can also determine the origin of a sound so the aid on that side turns up and the other side turns down.
Hearing aids can also record how much they are used and in what types of environments they’re used so that the provider can adjust them further.
“Hearing aids have sophisticated algorithms and hardware,” Andrews said. “The direction of where sound is coming from is almost as important as the loudness of the sound.”
He said that hearing aids may be as inconspicuous as users would like or designed with fashion colors and patterns, if desired.
“We can make most hearing aids completely invisible, so people won’t see them if that’s what the issue is,” he said. “What people will notice is that you’re much more alert and aware. You may seem smarter than before.”
He also noted that since most people have some sort of Bluetooth device for listening to phone calls or music, wearing a hearing aid is not associated with stigma anymore.
“Hearing aids do not have to cost a lot of money,” Andrews said. “Most reputable professionals will let you try prescription hearing aids before you make a purchasing decision.”
Got Hearing Aids — Now What?
“It definitely takes some time for acclimation,” said Nicole Anzalone, audiologist and owner of Syracuse Hearing Solutions in Camillus. “The duration of that time depends on how long they’ve had the hearing loss and the severity of the hearing loss.”
She likens the experience to living in a dark cave for years and then entering a brightly lit room. It takes time to adapt. Many people take an average of 7 to 10 years before they seek help and treatment for their hearing loss.
Once the aids are fitted, patients visit Anzalone two weeks later to adjust their instruments and then afterwards, monthly for care, cleaning and general maintenance.
“That’s to maintain good sound quality,” Anzalone said. “They’re so susceptible to ear wax blocking the sound. We want them clean and clear. We may still do some fine tuning every few months.
“We also do testing for speech and noise testing to see how much benefit they’re getting to make sure they’re getting functional benefit. We can measure and test the output, but it’s important to see the benefit they’re getting and how well they’re doing with their devices.”