Sound is invisible, but the impact of hearing loss on people’s lives is apparent.
“All the research points to that long-term, untreated hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline,” said Tupelo audiologist Rhonda Sage, who has helped people cope with hearing loss for 29 years. “You’re depriving yourself of one of your senses.”
When people can’t hear well, they often become isolated from others, leaving them vulnerable to declining emotional and physical health.
“So much relies on hearing,” said Krisha Boren, a doctorate-trained audiologist who works with Advanced Ear, Nose and Throat Specialty Clinic in New Albany. “Auditory nerve contributes to both hearing and balance. It’s two systems, not just one.”
Hearing aids can’t cure damage to the auditory nerve, but they can make the most of the capacity that remains and provide crucial stimulation to the auditory nerve and the brain.
“If you don’t use it, you’re losing it,” said Dawn McCarty, a doctorate-trained audiologist with Hearing Services of Tupelo.
Although the stigma has receded, some still believe hearing aids are only for old people. The reality is that hearing loss can affect people at any age.
Tupelo ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Mont Berry was an avid hunter as a teen and was diagnosed with hearing damage at 18. He has worn hearing aids for 10 years.
“The technology has gotten better,” able to amplify at just the frequencies where he has damage, Berry said. “If you do have hearing loss, there are good solutions.”
It can be difficult for individuals to perceive changes in hearing, because it can occur gradually and they don’t perceive it as absence of sound. Audiologists often hear from new patients that the people around them are mumbling.
“They’ll say, ‘I can hear, but I don’t always understand,’” said Boren, who noted people often have damage at the higher frequencies, which are important for clarity of speech.
In some cases, hearing loss can be mistaken for other problems. In one case, Sage remembers a long-ago patient whose family thought she was developing dementia because she was talking crazy and having hallucinations.
“What she actually had was severe hearing loss and cataracts in both eyes; she wasn’t hearing well, which created the inappropriate responses, and she was seeing double,” said Sage, who remembers the patient did well following surgery and hearing aids.
Audiological exams are typically conducted by audiologists and include a visual exam of the ear and a hearing test. In addition to checking the ability to hear at different frequencies, they look for other things that can impact hearing.
Audiologists can remove ear wax build up that can muffle hearing. If there are signs of infection or fluid build up behind the ear drum, they refer the patient to a physician for follow-up.
For people with no symptoms of hearing loss, it’s a good idea to be screened annually after age 50 because age can take a toll on hearing.
The technology packed into hearing aids has changed tremendously. When Sage started as an audiologist 29 years ago, it was all analog and basically adjusted for volume.
“Now microprocessors in hearing aids are constantly adjusting,” Sage said. “There’s feedback suppression.”
Today’s hearing aids are more like graphic equalizers, able to make fine adjustments at different frequency ranges, Boren said.
Many have Bluetooth connectivity, allowing people to get phone calls or music transmitted directly to the hearing aid. Others can connect with remote microphones, allowing for clearer conversations with people in the car, restaurants or meetings.
Some hearing aids have geolocation technology that will remember changes users make in settings in a particular location, like a noisy restaurant, Sage said.
“When you go back, it will automatically change the settings,” Sage said.
Hearing aids come in a range of sizes and shapes.
The receiver in the ear aid is among the most popular styles currently. It looks similar to larger behind-the-ear hearing aids, but the receiver in the ear aids use a clear tube to allow a tiny receiver to be placed in the ear.
With in-the-canal hearing aids, the device is placed inside the ear. Completely in the canal hearing aids are designed to be minimally visible.
The style of hearing aid is largely based on the results of the exam and the type of hearing loss. The level of technology in the hearing aid is based on lifestyle, social and professional demands and budget. The different levels of technology are available in all styles of hearing aids, Sage said.
Hearing aids, which typically last five to seven years, are a significant investment. Costs can range from $1,400 for a single ear with the simplest level of technology to more than $5,000 with the highest levels of technology.
Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids, and private insurance coverage is spotty. Manufacturers do offer patient assistance programs, and most centers and clinics have financing options. Those who need hearing aids to continue working may qualify for assistance through the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitative Services.
The prices include audiology services to adjust the hearing aids. Those adjustments are key to getting the most out of the hearing aid.
“It’s really a relationship,” McCarty said. “You need to fine-tune it to suit you and your hearing.”
Purchasing a hearing aid through an internet site may not be the bargain it appears, audiologists caution. Patients need to make sure they are purchasing the right hearing aid for their hearing loss and lifestyle, as well as making sure a local audiologist will agree to provide adjustments.
Rehab for hearing
The process of fitting hearing aids has more in common with physical therapy than glasses.
“The longer you go without hearing, the harder it is for the brain to relearn to interpret the signals,” McCarty said.
For people with normal hearing, the brain is constantly distinguishing between important sounds and unimportant sounds.
“When someone gets hearing aids, the brain has to relearn which sounds to ignore,” McCarty said. “The first month is the hardest.”
During those first weeks, the hum of the refrigerator or the buzz of the air conditioner can be really annoying. Patients have to get used to the sound of their own voice through the hearing aid.
Usually, new hearing aid patients return after the first week and then again over the next few months to dial in the hearing aids. Audiologists can make adjustments to dial down the annoying sounds as the brain relearns what to ignore. Once things are set, patients usually come in twice a year for cleaning and maintenance.
“The more particular you are, the more we can really fine-tune it,” McCarty said.
It’s very important for people to wear the hearing aids as much as possible, ideally from the time they get up in the morning to when they go to bed at night.
“If they are just worn to church or when someone comes to visit, you’ll never be happy with them,” McCarty said.
While hearing aids can’t reverse hearing loss, they can have a tremendous impact on quality of life.
“For people limited by hearing loss, hearing aids open new doors,” Sage said. “You can compensate for hearing loss and be able to enjoy your family.”