Thanks to the internet, we can do a lot of things in the comfort of our own homes. With a click of the mouse, we can have Christmas gifts for friends and family delivered right to our doorstep, research the best deals on cars and appliances - and even take an online hearing test.
What is an online hearing test?
Basically, online hearing tests offer a simple way for you to test your how well you are hearing. Most tests use a questionnaire or ask you to listen to audio files of tones or spoken word. One may ask you to pick out a series of words from background noise, another may focus on comparing tones at different frequencies. Some even plot your results on a chart to illustrate whether your hearing is normal, or you have mild, moderate or severe hearing loss. Most of the results are revealed immediately, while a few sites email you the results within a specified timeframe.
Those which ask you to listen to tones or distinguish between words usually begin by asking you to calibrate your speakers or headphones. Most sites say their audio tests work best when you use headphones that fit tightly against your ears and ask you to reduce your volume to the lowest level you can hear or by matching the volume to a sound on the website.
We're going to debut our own Healthy Hearing online hearing check on May 5. Our test will contain a series of questions to help you assess your hearing health and will be easily found on our homepage. Unlike some hearing tests which require you to calibrate and sometimes connect speakers or microphones, ours will be a simple questionnaire that will provide a snapshot of your hearing health.
So what can online hearing tests do?
Online hearing tests can give you an indication of whether or not you have hearing loss. They are also a good way to see if your hearing has returned to normal after being in a stressful situation, such as a loud music concert or sporting event. If you already wear hearing aids, an online hearing test can help you assess their performance. They can also provide access to hearing health information that can help you conserve your hearing with the help of a reputable audiologist in your community.
What don't online hearing tests do?
Online hearing tests are not a substitute for a proper hearing test by a hearing health professional - and the majority of websites offering these online tests emphasize this. They cannot diagnose your hearing problem or determine whether or not you need a hearing aid. For example, you may have conductive hearing loss from excessive ear wax or a tumor that impairs your hearing. Certain medications may be contributing to your problem, as well as another health condition that can only be detected by a medical professional.
Keep in mind - there are a lot of things that can influence your online test results, too. How good are the speakers on your computer? If you were using headphones, did they fit tightly against your ears? Were you taking the test in a quiet environment, or did noise from the refrigerator or air conditioner interfere with your ability to hear? Also, because you are "calibrating" your own computer equipment, the accuracy is well, shall we say, subject to human error? You may also find your results are different from test to test. There are no federal guidelines or certifications for online hearing testing which is why almost every site will encourage you to seek medical attention if your results show you have hearing loss or if you think your hearing is impaired for any reason.
When should you follow up on the results of an online hearing test?
If the results of your hearing test indicate you only have a mild hearing loss, you may be reluctant to make an appointment with an audiologist but consider this - even mild hearing loss may cause brain atrophy in older adults, according to a 2011 study by Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The atrophy takes place in the auditory areas of the brain, increasing the listening effort required for older adults (60-77 years of age) to understand speech. The researchers advocate interventions such as hearing aids to preserve brain function.
Of course, the decision is up to you. Many individuals can live with mild hearing loss. Others, such as musicians, teachers or therapists who rely on their hearing to do their jobs well, may want to visit a hearing health professional to see if amplification will help them. If you're over the age of 65, it may not be a bad idea to get a baseline hearing test from a professional anyway. And, of course, if you believe you are experiencing problems with your hearing, seek medical treatment immediately - regardless of what an online hearing test may indicate.