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Why hearing aids are not one-size-fits-all

Contributed by , staff writer

We try on clothes to get the right fit. Our doctors make sure they prescribe the right amount of medication for our age, weight and condition. The eyeglasses you wear when you drive won't help your spouse, who needs them to read. So doesn't it make sense we should make sure our hearing aids fit us correctly, too?

Believe it or not, some individuals with hearing loss say they are reluctant to wear hearing aids because friends or relatives have told them theirs don't work.  If you suspect you have some degree of hearing loss but have delayed getting treatment for this reason, here's why you should make an appointment to see a hearing professional in the near future.

Hearing Health statistics

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 37 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Eighteen percent are between the ages of 45-64, 30 percent are 65-74 and 47 percent are 75 years of age or older. Of those, only one in five actually wear a hearing aid.

That's unfortunate because the most common type of hearing loss -- sensorineural, which frequently occurs as we age -- can often be treated with hearing aids.

hearing aid flow chartToday's hearing aids

Less than 30 years ago, hearing aids were larger, bulkier and could only be programmed for a handful of listening environments. Today's hearing aids are smaller, more discreet, and even come in designer colors. There are two types:

  • Analog hearing aids, while becoming less and less common, amplify sound waves and can be programmed for different listening environments.
  • Digital hearing aids convert sound waves into signals and duplicate sound much better than their analog counterparts.  Digital technology makes hearing aids compatible with smart phones, televisions, and other personal electronic devices that many with hearing loss aren't able to enjoy to their fullest.

In addition to the ability to program hearing aids for different listening environments, there are also a variety of shapes and sizes to choose from. Hearing aid manufacturers produce devices in a variety of shapes and sizes for this reason. Behind the ear (BTE) models are small plastic cases that fit behind the ear with plastic tubing that connects to the earpiece. This style is good for growing children or those who need a sturdy hearing aid. In the ear (ITE) models are shells that fit in the outer ear. In the canal (ITC) and completely in the canal (CIC) models are the smallest hearing aids available and almost completely undetectable.

How do you know which model is best for you? Your hearing health professional will custom fit you with hearing aids depending upon your type of hearing loss, physiology and lifestyle.

  • Type of Hearing loss: There are three distinct types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural and mixed hearing loss. Individuals with conductive hearing loss usually have some type of obstruction, such as ear wax or fluid in the ear from an infection. Those with sensorineural hearing loss have damage to the inner ear where the auditory nerve is located and are typically the best candidates for hearing aids. Sensorineural hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process; however, can also be caused by exposure to loud noises, head trauma or diseases such as measles, meningitis and the mumps. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. It's important for a hearing health professional to determine which type of hearing loss you have, so they can recommend the best course of treatment.
  • Physiology: Have you ever noticed how many different shapes of noses there are in the world? Jimmy Durante sure made a good living with his unique profile -- and Bob Hope often said that his ski-sloped nose "came on stage 10 minutes before he did." Everyone's ears are shaped differently, too -- inside and out -- which means unless your ears are identically shaped like everyone else you know, their hearing aids won't fit your unique design.
  • Lifestyle: Are you still working? Do you interact with people on a daily basis? Are you an avid golfer, skier, or work outside for a living? Do you attend a lot of music concerts or sporting events -- or find yourself in noisy restaurants frequently? Is it important for you to be able to use wireless technology? These are the types of questions a hearing health professional will ask when determining which hearing aid will perform the best as you go about your daily routine.

Adjustment period

No matter how technologically advanced your new hearing aids are, plan on giving yourself some time to adjust. The adjustment period for hearing aids can be as little as a few days or take several months, depending upon your expectations, lifestyle and hearing loss. Additionally, if you're experiencing any type of discomfort, don't hesitate to tell your hearing health professional. They may be able to make minor adjustments to help you maximize the benefits you receive from your hearing instruments. Most people require some fine tuning before they are completely comfortable with their new hearing aids.

Give your brain some time to adjust, too. If you've waited a few years to seek treatment for your hearing loss, there are some sounds your brain hasn't interpreted for awhile. Your hearing aids will sound more natural as your brain adjusts.

Why you should see a hearing health professional

Studies indicate individuals with a diagnosed hearing loss wait as many as ten years before being fit with their first pair of hearing aids. A 1999 study by the National Council on Aging of 4,000 adults with hearing loss showed significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression among those who did not wear hearing aids. Another study by John Hopkins University showed a distinct link between degree of hearing loss and the risk of developing dementia.

The good news is, research indicates that overall satisfaction with new hearing aids is 77 percent, which places them in the top third of products and services in the United States. Although hearing aids do not restore your hearing to normal, users report improved relationships with family and friends, a feeling of independence and security, better job performance, and enhanced participation in social gatherings.

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