By Robby Brumberg
Do you struggle to follow conversations, understand television dialogue or hear chatter on the radio clearly? Or perhaps you know full well your hearing isn’t as good as it once was. In any case, you’re far from alone. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:
- Approximately 15% of U.S. adults (37.5 million people) report some trouble hearing.
- One in eight people in the U.S. ages 12 and older has hearing loss in both ears, based on standard hearing examinations.
- About 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.
Depending on the severity and cause(s) of your hearing loss, hearing aids could enhance your quality of life. Here’s what you need to know about life with hearing aids, and key factors to consider when determining whether hearing aids are right for you.
What Are Hearing Aids, Exactly?
Hearing aids are electronic devices, worn either in, on or behind the ear, that amplify sound. Hearing aids aren’t a cure or complete offset for deafness. Rather, they’re designed to help people with hearing loss better hear, understand and communicate with their surroundings.
There are several types of hearing aids, though they share similar core components, including:
- A microphone to capture sound
- An amplifier to increase the volume of sound
- A tiny loudspeaker, which delivers sound into the ear canal
- Batteries of some sort to supply power
The science behind hearing aid technology is fairly straightforward but has come a long way since U.S. inventor Miller Reese Hutchison patented the first hearing aid device in 1895. While Hutchison’s invention was bulky, cumbersome and not at all portable, today’s sleek models do share some of the same basic principles of his design. Microphones capture sound waves and convert those sounds into electrical signals, which are then enhanced by an amplifier. Those signals travel to a loudspeaker, which converts them back into (louder) sound waves for the wearer.
As for the various types of hearing aids, the FDA describes the four most common options as:
- Behind-the-ear (BTE) aids
- On-the-ear (OTE) aids
- In-the-ear (ITE) aids
- In-the-canal (ITC) aids
These variations differ slightly in terms of how (and where) they’re positioned and how much they cost, but all fulfill the same basic purpose. With that said, before settling on a hearing aid style or type, visit your doctor for a referral to either an otolaryngologist or audiologist, who can first identify the root cause(s) of your hearing loss. From there, your specialist can help to identify the best hearing aids to suit your specific needs.
Why Hearing Aids Are Worth It
Hearing loss is no small matter—and not something to simply “deal with” as you age. John Coverstone, an audiologist in New Brighton, Minnesota, and host of the AudiologyTalk podcast, told Forbes Health that hearing loss can leave you feeling like you’re on the outside looking in. “Having hearing loss is like you’re backing out 10 feet from a conversation,” he said, adding that people tend to feel more isolated due to this dynamic.
Beyond causing frustration, confusion and isolation, hearing loss is tied to an increased risk of dementia—and can even cause the brain to shrink as it works harder to fill in the gaps hearing loss creates, research suggests. Hearing loss is also linked to heightened risks for depression and falls.
Conversely, wearing hearing aids can improve comprehension significantly and help open (or reopen) a world of possibilities. Aside from the practical benefits of bolstering your sense of hearing, taking such a step for your overall wellness can have a big impact on your quality of life. For example, research from The Lancet found that wearing hearing aids can significantly reduce a person’s risk of dementia caused by hearing loss.
Are Hearing Aids Right for You? Here’s What to Ask
So, what are some signs that indicate you might benefit from hearing aids? According to the National Institute on Aging, it may be time to seek help for hearing loss if you:
- Have trouble hearing over the telephone
- Find it hard to follow conversations when two or more people are talking
- Often ask people to repeat what they’re saying
- Need to turn up the television’s volume so loud that others complain
- Have a problem hearing because of background noise
- Think others seem to mumble
- Can’t understand when people speak to you
If any of those scenarios sound familiar, and you do decide to inquire about hearing aids and how they might help you, The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders recommends asking your audiologist the following questions before making your selection:
- What features would be most useful to me?
- What is the total cost of the hearing aid? Do the benefits of newer technologies outweigh the higher costs?
- Is there a trial period to test the hearing aids? (Most manufacturers allow a 30- to 60-day trial period during which aids can be returned for a refund.) What fees are nonrefundable if the aids are returned after the trial period?
- How long is the warranty? Can it be extended? Does the warranty cover future maintenance and repairs?
- Can the audiologist make adjustments and provide servicing and minor repairs? Will loaner aids be provided when repairs are needed?
- What instruction does the audiologist provide?
With hearing aids, as with most things in life, it’s important to establish healthy, reasonable expectations. Even with top-notch hearing aids, your hearing may not be “as it used to be.” But over time, as you adjust to wearing them and interpreting sound in new ways, you’ll likely find that hearing aids can improve both your hearing and comprehension—which is a big step toward enhancing your quality of life.