Sound Advice on Hearing
What did you say?
For many of us, that's a common question. Nearly 30 million Americans
have some form of hearing loss, including one of every three people ages
65 to 75. Yet just a fraction of us seek help. Why?
For one thing, hearing loss is invisible. Age-related hearing trouble sneaks
up over 10 or 20 years. People may not notice the changes.
"They're hearing a lot of sounds. They're just not hearing
them as much as they should," says Dennis Hampton, Ph.D., an audiologist
at Westchester Audiology Center n White Plains, N.Y. "The description
I get often is that, 'I can hear people fine. They're just not
being clear enough.'"
But there's another reason: Hearing impairment carries a stigma. Many
of us resist the idea of hearing loss, seeing it as a sign of age.
That could explain why just one in five people who need a hearing aid actually
wears one-even though technology has made hearing aids much more effective.
Most of us wait an average of five to seven years from the time we recognize
hearing problems to the time we seek medical help.
How hearing fails
Your hearing can suffer in two main ways:
Conductive hearing loss results when transmission of sound in the inner
ear from the eardrum to the oval window of the cochlea is inhibited. This
may be caused by a variety of conditions, including scarring of the eardrum
(TM), perforation of the TM, scarring or destruction of the ossicles (three
bones of the inner ear that conduct sound from the ear drum to the oval
window), fluid or mucus in the middle ear or calcification closing the
oval window. Infections of the middle ear are frequent causes of conductive loss.
Sensorineural hearing loss, or nerve loss, involves inner-ear damage. It's
the most common form of hearing loss in older Americans. The three main
causes, according to Dr. Hampton, are aging, loud noises and heredity.
"Typically, hearing loss starts in the higher frequencies," says
Laura Voll, a certified audiologist at Phonak Inc. in Warrenville, Ill.
"It begins with losing consonant sounds like 's,' 'sh'
and 't' sounds. Things seem loud enough. They're just not
clear. So the person isn't sure if there's a hearing difficulty
or if others just aren't speaking up. It's silent, it's painless
and it's gradual."
Signs of trouble
Here are some signs that you could be experiencing hearing loss:
People around you seem to be mumbling or not speaking clearly.
You often ask folks to repeat what they say.
Others say you've turned up the television or radio too loud.
You find that watching someone speak helps you understand them.
If you suspect your hearing range has decreased, you should see a doctor
who can diagnose the problem and recommend a treatment.
Why you must act
Hearing is a large part of communication. When you can't hear, you
begin to communicate less and less. You stop socializing.
"We see a much higher incidence of depression and loneliness due to
hearing loss," says Ms. Voll. "Hearing aids do work. If you're
worried about what they look like, don't. If you haven't seen
a hearing aid lately, it's probably because you can't see them
A hearing aid primer
You can chose from several sizes and types of hearing aids. According to
Ms. Voll, nearly all sizes are compatible with new technologies.
Behind the ear
These sit over the ear with a customized earpiece. They're often suggested
for children because they're more water- and shock-resistant. But
they're also handy because the user can add listening accessories,
such as a wireless communication device. And they're used with severe
hearing loss because they can deliver power through larger transducers.
In the ear
These fit into the bowl-shaped opening just inside the ear. These one-piece
models, smaller than behind-the-ear types, use the ear's natural sound-collecting
In the canal (ITC) and completely in the canal (CIC)
Very small and hard to see, they're worn within the ear canal. "These
are the type that Bill Clinton wears that you didn't even know he
had," says Ms. Voll.
Hearing aids run the gamut from conventional to high-tech. Prices range
from $800 to $1,000 for economical custom-fitted models to $4,000 or more
for high-end devices with digital and programmable features. More than
half the hearing aids sold today use digital processing; three out of
four are programmable. The options:
Easy-to-customize technology lets you modify amplification of different
frequency ranges through a computer. You can tailor such models closely
to your needs.
Newer than the analog programmable models, these can be finely tailored
to the individual even more closely. They're more flexible and improve
understanding much better than the analog and somewhat better than the
analog programmable hearing aids but are more costly.
These economical units offer good performance. But they're not the
best choice for those suffering from background noise interference. These
hearing aids are broadband amplifiers amplifying equally all frequency
ranges, background noise and speech. They are the least effective of the
In Napa, Queen of the Valley Medical Associates has an audiology center
on-site. For more information, visit