Hearing Loss

The idea of wearing hearing aids fills many people with dread. But today’s appliances are not your parents’ hearing aids. “The most advancements (in audiology) have been made in the technology of the hearing instruments,” says Alison LeGrand, an audiologist at the Hearing Health Care Center. “The sizes are getting even smaller, and they have wireless connection to devices such as TV and cell phones.”

    Even implantable hearing aids are becoming available, but LeGrand notes that this new technology may not be a good choice for everyone. “First of all, it’s probably going to cost around $30,000. It’s an invasive surgery, and I don’t necessarily believe that the quality is that much improved, especially since hearing aids are getting so much better at processing sound,” she says.

    “Digital hearing aids improved sound quality 10 or 12 years ago and have been refined since then,” says Patrick Mangino, an audiologist and regional manager with Beltone. “Now we have second, third and even fourth-generation chips in hearing aids that allow for more complex analysis of sound so we can add features specific to various situations. These hearing aids are capable of hundreds of thousands of calculations within seconds.”

    Mangino notes that the new hearing aids can filter background noise while preserving sound quality of speech. The key is in properly adjusting the hearing aid for each individual’s circumstances. “We can program some hearing aids with three or four specific programs for specific purposes,” he says. “Using the computer, we input different characteristics—it’s like having four hearing aids in one.”

    For instance, the hearing aid can be programmed for music listening, conversation in busy places with background noise and other scenarios. The wearer simply changes settings to match the situation.

    Because today’s hearing aids are so complex, Mangino emphasizes that it is important to seek an experienced and qualified technician for fitting and adjustment. Follow-up appointments to refine the hearing aid are crucial, he adds, because only after wearing it for a week or two will a person know exactly what is needed. “Don’t get frustrated and put the hearing aid in a drawer,” he says. “We can virtually make millions of adjustments to make sure you’re hearing everything you want to hear.”

    At the same time, cosmetic improvements have made these high-tech hearing aids virtually undetectable, an innovation that has made a world of difference in encouraging more people to use them. “The open ear fit is really geared toward baby boomers and younger people with hearing loss,” says Jeff Singer, an audiologist and senior vice president of sales and operations for HearUSA.

    “Many people have hearing loss due to noise exposure in the early part of their lives, typically a high-frequency hearing loss,” he continues. “The beauty of the open ear fit is that it goes behind the ear but is very small. There’s just a very thin tube that runs into the ear, and it’s really not noticeable. And since the ear canal is not plugged up with an older-style hearing aid, people say their sense of hearing is more natural.”

    Singer adds that patients can try out a hearing aid in the shop to get an idea of how the open ear fit will feel and sound. If the patient likes it and is an appropriate candidate, final adjustments are made. “A hearing test is like a vision test—it’s a screening you should have annually, especially as you age,” he says. “Don’t put it off. You could be missing a lot by not hearing conversations well. These days, you can hear what you’re missing, and no one has to know you have hearing loss.”