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According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, a form of hearing loss occurs among 18 percent of Americans between 45 and 64 years old, 30 percent of those between 65 and 74 years old, and 47 percent of those 75 or older.
Doctors treat some hearing problems through medicine or surgery. Examples include when ear infection, wax buildup or the lodging of an insect or foreign object into the ear. In more serious cases, there might be a hole or rupture in the ear drum or a growth, such as a tumor. Hearing loss also can be genetic. Sometimes people temporarily lose their hearing as a result of another medical problem or illness.
Other sensorineural problems are permanent and cannot be treated with medicine or surgery. Someone with sensorineural loss may hear people talking but can't understand what they're saying. When people speak louder, this only makes the hearing problem worse. Those affected will probably hear better in quiet places but not as well in a room where many people are talking at once or when having a phone conversation. They can hear low tones more easily than high tones, so for example, they can better understand a man's voice than a woman's or child's. Illnesses, loud noises or medicines can result in damage to the inner ear, yet the most common cause for sensorineural hearing loss is aging. Electronic hearing aids are the best option for this type of hearing loss.
Inside the inner ear lies the cochlea, which contains thousands of nerve endings called hair cells that respond to high-pitched or low-pitched sounds. These hair cells are very delicate and sometimes become damaged over time. Sensory loss of hearing means that damage has occurred to the inner ear, and similar terms include cochlear or inner-ear hearing loss. The acoustic nerve that sends vibrations to the brain can be harmed as well, resulting in neural hearing loss. Doctors also call this nerve deafness, or retrocochlear hearing loss.
How hearing aids work
A hearing aid comprises a microphone, amplifier and receiver. The microphone changes sounds in the environment to electronic signals, the amplifier makes these signals louder and the receiver changes the signals back into sounds and sends them into the ear.
Hearing devices come in two types: analog and digital, and both types amplify sounds. Because digital hearing aids can better duplicate sounds, most manufacturers are phasing out analog aids. Digital technology offers a computer chip that changes sounds into a digital code and customizes the hearing results based on the person's individual listening needs. You can program both analog and digital instruments for different situations, such as a loud party or a quiet dinner, but digital aids offer more options.
The newer types of hearling aids are much smaller than those worn decades ago and, in some cases, completely invisible. Today, they come in six different models:
Completely-in-canal (CTC). Primarily for mild to moderate adult hearing loss, these models rest deep inside your ear canal. Because they're inside your ear, they're the most invisible. You can use the phone more easily, and you won't hear as much wind noise as with other types. But because they're smaller, battery life is shorter, and you can't adjust the volume.
In-the-canal (ITC). Simlar to CTC models, this type is custom-made but doesn't fit as snugly in the ear canal, so it's a little more visible.
Half-shell in-the-ear (ITE). Primarily for mild to moderately severe adult hearing loss, this custom-made device fits the bottom part of your outer ear and includes volume and directional microphones.
Full-shell in-the-ear (ITE). For mild to severe hearing loss, this custom-made version fills most of your outer ear. Because it's larger, it comes with a bigger battery, and you can adjust the volume more easily. The trade-off comes in being more visible and more likely to pick up wind noise.
Traditional behind-the-ear (BTE). Good for all types of hearing loss, this model fits behind your ear and hooks over the top and into your ear canal. Because it's larger, it can amplify sound better
Open fit behind-the-ear (BTE). Ideal for mild to moderate high-frequency hearling loss, this smaller version of the traditional style features a smaller tube to carry sound to the speaker in the ear canal. Because it's smaller, it has some of the benefits and drawbacks of other small types.
Do you need hearing aids?
If you're having hearing problems, talk to your doctor, who can perform a simple screening in his or her office. If you fail the screening, you should see a certified audiologist or ear, nose, and throat physician (an otolaryngologist) within three months for a more comprehensive hearing evaluation.
This specialist will conduct a series of evaluative tests. If you need a hearing aid, the audiologist will describe the different options, explain the advantages and disadvantages of each and fit the patient for the best choice based on lifestyle and health requirements.
You can obtain hearing aids right from your audiologist, otolaryngologist or hearing aid retailer. Because hearing aids are very personal, you'll want to find one with great expertise and customer service, so that you can find the pair that best suits you. Check the member reviews and ratings on Angie's List for places near you.