In a world full of constant sound and noise, it’s surprising how quickly and quietly our ability to hear can slip away.
Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults and approximately 17 percent, or 36 million, of American adults report that they suffer from some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institute of Health. Men are more likely to be affected than women.
Hearing loss can be triggered by any number of things – aging, disease, heredity, medications, even listening to music too
loudly or exposure to a loud work environment – and it affects everyone differently.
But one thing most people have in common is that generally they aren’t the first ones to notice there’s a problem.
“Hearing loss is very gradual in most cases, and people don’t always notice it for themselves. A lot of times it’s friends and family who realize that a person’s hearing is going,” said Hearing Northwest’s hearing specialist Stephanie Kutcher. “They notice that it takes several tries to get their attention or that the television volume is too loud, or their loved one is constantly repeating ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ in conversations. It can be frustrating.”
But, once the problem is identified, Kutcher said there are options, depending on the severity of the loss and what’s causing it.
A consultation with a hearing specialist or doctor can get the process started, and there are many offices that offer the test for free.
Kutcher said that they generally begin by putting patients through the paces of an in-depth tone check where, when listening through a set of headphones, they are asked to identify tones of varying decibels and intensity. “It helps us determine what you’re hearing and what you’re missing, and to what degree,” she said.
It’s followed by an examination of the outer and middle ear canal with an otoscope, a nifty, pain-free device consisting of a light source and magnifiers attached to a television monitor. “It allows us to see physically any obstructions that might be present in the ear, and if there’s anything we need to be concerned about before we fit a hearing aid device,” Kutcher said.
These are not your grandfather’s hearing aids. Sleek, slimmed down and digital, hearing aids today feature an upgrade in both style and technology and make it easy to make keyed-in adjustments for your individual hearing needs, Kutcher said. “They’ve come a long way,” she added.
There are several types of hearing aids you can choose from, from the entirely hidden “completely in the canal” model, which
is around the same size as a pencil eraser, to the “behind the ear” style, which consists of a wire that helps hold the apparatus in place behind your ear. What you choose depends on what’s comfortable for you and fits your lifestyle, Kutcher said.
“We take into account your level of dexterity, what kind of activities you’re participating in and then what feels right,” Kutcher said. “Some people prefer the discreetness that an ‘in the canal’ aid provides, while others prefer having a larger unit because it’s easier to adjust. It’s up to the individual. Then, once we find a match based on style, we start looking at technology available.”
Kutcher said that while the pricing on the styles of hearing aid is fairly equal, it’s the type of technology you choose for your hearing aid that drives the price point. “You’re generally looking at anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 for a hearing aid [at Hearing Northwest]. It just depends on what level of technology you want for the device and how much control you want to have for adjustments.” From the basic four-channel set to the platinum model – a 16-channel model – the options are varied, but Kutcher said that the more channels you have to work with, the more they can fine-tune the hearing aid to your level of hearing.
“There’s so much we can do with it,” Kutcher said. “Because it’s all digital, and we connect it wirelessly to our system when you’re in the office, it’s easy to make changes on the fly and customize the hearing aid to your needs. We can add in noise filtering modules to help control background noises or, if you’re a birdwatcher, we can add an outdoor program specifically designed to amplify outdoor noises so that you can hear every branch crack or bird song. It’s really cool what we can do to help people hear better.”
Ways to protect your hearing
Keep the music in your headphones at a safe level. “It’s best when you’re listening to headphones if you set it at a volume where you can still hear conversations around you,” said hearing specialist Stepahnie Kutcher.
Wear hearing protection when you’re in a loud environment. Sounds at or above 85 decibels (dB) can damage your ears. “Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common type that we see,” Kutcher said. “It’s really important to wear earplugs when you’re in a noisy environment. Workplaces are required to provide them but there are also a lot of custom-fit options available out there. The important thing is not to expose your hearing to potentially damaging noises.”
Be aware that medications and illnesses can have an effect on your hearing. Ototoxicity is damage to the ear caused by drugs or chemicals, but hearing loss can be caused by viral diseases including mumps, measles, pertussis and rubella. These types of infections are more common in childhood, but adults who haven’t been immunized and didn’t have the diseases in childhood may catch them, too. If you are having trouble with hearing, visit your healthcare provider for a checkup.