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Consumer Reports & Hearing Aids: Hear Well in a Noisy World

Consumer Reports, a well known source for unbiased product reviews and evaluations, published an article in their July, 2009 issue on hearing health: hearing aids, hearing protection and more. The article, called “Hear Well in a Noisy World” revealed some interesting and startling facts about hearing health.

According to the report, “When we [CR] set out to test hearing aids, we encountered the same challenges that hearing aid shoppers face every day.” And it’s these challenges that prevent many people who would benefit from a pair of hearing aids from making that appointment with an audiologist or hearing aid practitioner.

Quality Counts With Hearing Aids

Consumer Reports followed a dozen actual hearing aid patients as they shopped for and used hearing aids. They also conducted a national survey of 1100 people who had purchased hearing aids within the last three years and lab tested 44 hearing aids. So what did they find on their journey?

High prices. No surprise here. Consumer Reports found that their survey respondents spent on average between $1800 - $6800 for a pair of hearing aids in the New York City metro area, which included the professional fitting and follow-up services.

Whether the shopper spends $1,800 or $6,800, we’re talking about a lot of money and, it’s not by chance that Consumer Reports places high prices at the top of the list of challenges hearing aid shoppers face.

Yes hearing aids are expensive. However, they improve the quality of life by giving you back something you’ve lost – the ability to hear rain hitting the trees, birds twittering at the feeder and the sound a new grandchild makes when you pick her up.

Mediocre Fitting. The magazine reports that of the 48 hearing aids tested by audiologists in the laboratory, two-thirds were not tuned properly for the hearing needs of the hearing aid wearer.

Part of the deal in getting a couple of hearing aids is that they improve hearing. That’s a no-brainer. But two-thirds of all hearing aids tested were not tuned to the specific hearing loss of the wearer. In some cases, it was a simple volume thing, too loud or too soft. An easy fix. In other cases, hearing aids weren’t properly tuned for the loss of hearing at specific frequencies.

Lack of information. If you’re going to spend all that money, don’t you want to know everything you can about the hearing aids you purchase, including features and technology? CR found that a fourth of those 1,100 hearing aid wearers surveyed didn’t know whether their hearing aids came with automated feedback suppression and a third didn’t know if their hearing aids had directional microphones – both features that have become standard in even the most basic hearing aids due to their proven performance.

Many are Satisfied. Despite some of these negative findings, Consumer Reports found a positive one – nearly 73% of respondents are “highly satisfied with their aids”. This finding supports various research studies that have shown treating hearing loss with hearing aids improves quality of life and overall satisfaction for everyday communication abilities.

With the advancements of digital hearing aid technology, improvements have been made in design, style, wearing comfort, hearing comfort and most importantly listening satisfaction while in noisy environments. Consumer reports states: “Hearing aid technology has made major strides in recent years, most notably with the development of very small open-fit digital hearing aids. In loud social settings, the most challenging environments for hearing aid users, survey participants reported more improvement with those aids…..If you’re avoiding noisy places or having trouble in conversation or understanding the TV, it might be time for a hearing aid.”

Ensuring a Successful Hearing Aid Fitting

Choosing a Good Hearing Health Professional Is the Key. Chances are you’ll purchase hearing aids from an audiologist or from a licensed hearing aid practitioner (the only other alternative is purchasing on the internet from an unknown person). Consumer Reports recommends choosing a good provider is a critical first-step towards a successful experience with hearing aids.

So how does one go about choosing a “good” provider? Here are some options to go about this critical first-step:

  • Discuss with friends & family members who wear hearing aids. If they are happy with a hearing professional in your area, you may be too.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau
  • Contact the state professional organization or visit their website.
  • Once you have found a professional, check with your state to ensure the audiologist’s or hearing aid practitioner’s license is current and if they have had any formal complaints

Consumer Reports also recommends:

  • Ensure the professionals’ location and hours are convenient for you
  • Ask if the professional has walk-in hours if they are by appointment only
  • Ask the professional if they host a hearing-rehabilitation group or support services after you purchase hearing aids through them

This, That and the Other

Once you have identified and chosen a good provider there are other steps you may take to ensure higher success and satisfaction with your hearing aids.

  • Get a thorough hearing evaluation. Consumer Reports could not have stated it better: “A hearing aid provider is only as good as her evaluation – how she determines your hearing loss and verifies that the prescribed aids work”.
  • Allow time to get used to your new hearing aids. There is an adaptation period that occurs. Give your ears and brain time to get used to the hearing aids and new sound.
  • Work closely with your hearing professional during this adaptation phase to ensure the hearing aids sound comfortable to you.
  • Understand the product by reading all the materials provided to you by the hearing professional which includes manufacturer brochures and user guides. If you don’t understand a particular feature your hearing aids have, be sure to ask at your next appointment. The better you understand your hearing aids, the better you will be able to utilize the many features they have.

Ear Protection

Noise-induced hearing loss is the only preventable form of hearing loss so it is not surprising that Consumer Reports, like many other publications, also recommends protecting your hearing through the use of ear plugs, ear cups or simply by avoiding loud noises. By taking simple steps, you protect the sensitive and delicate hearing mechanism from damage – damage that can not be undone. Once hearing loss occurs, it doesn’t come back on its own. It’s gone for good.

Hearing loss occurs in a couple of different ways, according to CR’s piece: exposure to a single, loud noise and/or exposure to loud noise over a long period of time. Long term noise exposure does not just happen to persons who work in a noisy environment for a living (i.e. construction workers), it can happen doing everyday activities throughout a lifetime such as mowing the lawn. It’s the cumulative effect of loud noise over a long time. By wearing hearing protection whenever you may face noise exposure will ensure you are protecting your delicate hearing system.

CR also recommends that you “gauge your exposure.” Who thinks about the noise around them? We’re surrounded, bombarded from all sides with MP3 players, buses, cars, surround sound home theaters – were surrounded by sound but the only time we really think about it is when it’s SO loud it hurts. Well, it doesn’t have to hurt to cause hearing loss. So, increase awareness of the sounds around you and wear ear plugs when you know things are going to get LOUD! Finally,

Give Your New Ears a Chance

Real good point from Consumer Reports. Nothing – no hearing aid – is going to restore hearing to “normal” – the hearing you had before your head-banging days. That hearing is gone – este no mas.

Your hearing health professional will help you through the transition phase – figure anywhere between 30 -90 days. Some people adjust immediately. For others, transitioning from bad hearing to good takes some getting used to so expect some transition time. And don’t be afraid to go back to your hearing aid professional for tweaking as needed. If you aren’t getting a listening experience that makes life better, what’d you spend all that money on?

So, before you call a hearing health professional, do your homework. You want listening comfort (as natural as you can get), wearing comfort (of course) and ease of use. You also want a professional who will educate you, instruct you and work with you to deliver the best listening experience you can experience.

It’s all in the July, 2009 issue of Consumer Reports and definitely worth a read before you buy a pair of hearing aids. An educated consumer, working in tandem with a knowledgeable, engaged hearing professional, delivers the best results.

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