The Sound of Silence

Today's take on yesterday's hearing aids.

It's one of the top medical problems facing the world today. In the United States, one in ten adults is afflicted. Of those, 80 percent go untreated. Thirty million people are exposed to its risk factors while at work, and many do not even recognize its onset and progression — a progression that is preventable but not truly curable.

What is this prevalent yet widely untreated condition? It's hearing loss, and once its damage is done, it can't be undone. That's why, as a first step, doctors implore their patients to protect their hearing by avoiding exposure to loud noise and wearing earplugs when such exposure does occur. Despite preventive measures, however, hearing loss is still a widespread problem that, fortunately, can be greatly helped by hearing aids.

Vigilant ear-plug-wearers, rock stars, teenagers, senior citizens — who, exactly, is a candidate for a hearing test? Everyone, according to audiologist Dr. Ben Cox, who established Memphis Hearing Aid in 1984. He recommends getting a quick, baseline hearing test early on, prior to the onset of hearing loss, for later comparison. Especially, says Cox, "When a person starts to notice they're hearing but not understanding."

For those who can't picture themselves wearing hearing devices, says Cox, look into the idea before shooting it down. "These are not your grandmother's hearing aids," he says.

Dr. Paul Shea of the Shea Ear Clinic agrees: "Every couple of years they come out with a new generation of hearing aids that are more powerful than the previous generation and have more capability. If people are wearing older hearing aids and they want to step up to a newer pair, it would be like going from a 25-year-old car to a new one. It would be a major change."

Older analog aids have become obsolete in favor of new streamlined, digital versions, which are essentially microcomputers that can amplify different frequencies catered to one's individual hearing deficits, rather than simply amplifying all frequencies of sound equally (hence the reason that they are much better at filtering out background noise). Furthermore, as the patient continues to come in for check-ups, which Cox deems "vital," he or she can let the audiologist know what particular difficulties he or she has been having, and the audiologist can tweak the hearing aid to suit those individual needs.

Depending on the level of technology (and price), digital hearing aids also have a number of options. Many can learn the individual's preferences – if the wearer adjusts the hearing aid in a certain way in a certain environment (such as turning it down while in a restaurant), the hearing aid will automatically begin to adjust itself accordingly. Furthermore, some models can sense when a telephone is approaching the ear and change appropriately, and still newer ones can literally function as a Bluetooth headset at the switch of a button, allowing the person to speak on the telephone or listen to the television wirelessly.

These little technological masterpieces come in a variety of styles. Tiny Completely-In-Canal (CIC) aids are increasingly popular because they are virtually invisible once placed inside the ear. Often, people do not want others to know they have a hearing aid. However, attitudes about hearing aids are changing, and people are beginning to treat them as fashion statements. Baby boomers in particular are gravitating toward more visible styles of hearing aids in a wide variety of colors — polka dot, leopard print, hot pink, even school colors.

For those people, In-The-Ear (ITE) or Behind-The-Ear (BTE) models are better options. Both include a microphone connected to a wire that goes into the canal with a tiny speaker, allowing air to flow through the canal. This takes care of some patients' complaints that the CIC style produces a hollow sound, making them feel as if they are "in a barrel." Furthermore, BTE aids are gaining popularity because they cut down on feedback, resemble a Bluetooth headset, and are larger in size, which makes them potentially more powerful and easier to handle.

"We hear a lot that people have been told that hearing aids won't help them, and that is a very common misconception," notes Shea. He says that even the profoundly deaf can hear with cochlear implants, and those with middle ear malformations can pursue the option of a bone-anchored hearing aid. But for the vast majority, normal hearing aids alone will greatly help restore their hearing.

Prices range from the upper hundreds to several thousand dollars for each hearing aid, depending on the level of technology. Though not cheap, these devices are a quality-of-life investment.

"You might be in a restaurant and someone asks you, 'Do you have the key?' and you answer back, 'Not any more tea.' You know, it's that close, and it's frustrating," Cox explains. "Sometimes you have to fill in the blanks — you guess at it. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, and it's frustrating for people.

"What we're trying to do," he continues, "is take away the frustration, so they laugh and know what they're laughing about, or cry and know why they're crying: Because they understood somebody." 

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