By SARA ARTHURS
Like so many things, hearing aids have grown more sophisticated with modern technology.
When Jodi Turnwald, an audioprosthologist at Findlay Hearing Aid Center, started her career, fitting someone with a hearing aid would take an hour to an hour and a half. Today it’s a 15- or 20-minute procedure that mainly consists of counseling.
Turnwald has been in the audiology field for 14 years and will soon become owner of the practice.
She said modern hearing aids are digital and, after an audiologist enters information about a patient’s hearing loss into a computer, a program is downloaded into the hearing aid so it knows how to perform.
The technology offers the ability to adjust the hearing aid depending on a person’s lifestyle. For example, a preacher might want different settings than a construction worker, and someone who spends most of their time at home may not have the same needs as someone who is more active. Hearing aids can often distinguish between speech and other noises.
“The hearing aids are pretty smart,” Turnwald said.
They also record how long they have been worn, so when the client comes back in Turnwald can see how much they have worn their hearing aid.
There are even apps that allow a hearing aid to work with a smartphone. Turnwald had a client who is a college student who had trouble hearing his lectures. He recorded them on his phone and was able to play them back through his hearing aid. It’s also possible to stream music from a cellphone or tablet directly into a hearing aid.
While today’s hearing aids are an improvement over past generations, they aren’t perfect, Turnwald said.
Even with a hearing aid, a senior is not going to hear the way he or she did at age 18.
Hearing aids today are more durable, so if someone drops it they don’t need to panic. They’re also more water- and sweat-resistant.
Hearing loss is most often associated with aging, but younger people can lose hearing too. Children can be born with hearing loss or can lose it after an ear infection, and trauma such as a skull fracture or concussion may affect hearing as well as “sound trauma,” or exposure to loud noise, said Dr. Andrew Reid, an ear, nose and throat specialist. Reid said factory workers generally have good ear protection these days but people who fix their own motorcycles or engage in recreational shooting can experience a loss. Since the damage is cumulative over a lifetime, Reid recommends ear protection even while mowing or snowblowing.
Reid said people can also lose their hearing suddenly due to a virus. Studies have shown that if this is treated immediately, the hearing is more likely to be recovered, but if several weeks pass without treatment the damage is permanent. Reid encourages anyone who suddenly finds they can’t hear well in one ear, or who feel one ear is very plugged, to get it checked out sooner rather than later.
Reid said hearing loss among seniors is partly due to “genetic variability,” which makes some people likely to need hearing aids relatively early in their senior years while others don’t need them even into their 90s.
Diet plays a role and a study has found that a diet high in antioxidants and low in fat protects the tissue of the ears, Reid said. Smoking increases the risk of hearing loss since it can damage the small blood vessels in the ear.
Reid said another common problem is “word recognition, or the clarity” or neurological function of hearing, such as understanding the words that someone is saying. Seniors over age 85 are particularly prone.
Clinical audiologist Michael Webb of Precise Audiology, Inc. said the first thing is for a person to acknowledge that there is a problem with their hearing. For some people it’s a “nuisance loss,” a relatively minor problem where they can mostly hear, but just can’t hear in certain situations.
The patient goes through hearing tests to see the shape and amount of loss. “Shape” refers to what types of sounds, such as someone who might hear better noises that are in a lower pitch, Webb said.
These tests, along with a patient’s observations, give Webb a sense of what type of problem the patient is facing.
Turnwald will have patients being fitted with a new hearing aid speak so the client can hear the sound of their own voice with the aid. She also gives them advice on things such as how often to change the batteries.
Webb likes seeing when someone is newly fitted with a hearing aid.
“They are just so overwhelmed with being able to hear,” he said.
Clarence Day, 81, of Findlay, wears hearing aids in both ears. He has worn them, on and off, for about 15 years and has found that they have changed over time. The current aids are digital.
Day has trouble with word definition and said the hearing aids allow him to understand people better, especially if someone is speaking in a low tone, such as a teller at a bank.
Without the hearing aids, “I catch myself all the time saying, ‘I can’t quite hear you … speak a little louder, if you could.'”
He has had no major problems with his hearing aids.
“They’re an asset to me, no doubt about that,” Day said.
He said one challenge is that he also wears glasses. Most of the time the hearing aids fit over the ear in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the glasses, but on occasion it causes them to slide down.
Day receives his hearing aids through the Veterans Administration clinic in Toledo. He served in the Army for many years and was exposed to machine gun and rifle noises. At the time, the Army didn’t give out ear plugs, he said.
While Day’s experience has been good, some people who have hearing aids choose not to use them. If someone who has been prescribed a hearing aid isn’t wearing it, Webb said there are several things to consider including the degree of loss, the type of hearing aid fitted and how it was programmed, and how they were counseled on the hearing aids.
He said if he doesn’t hear back from a patient, he assumes that everything is going well.
Webb said someone with a new hearing aid will find themselves hearing sounds they previously couldn’t pick up. With hearing loss, “you start to live in this somewhat quiet world” and suddenly there are more noises in the background, especially with computers and other machines.
“I think it is a noisier world” than it used to be, he said.
Reid noted that wearing hearing aids can enhance safety, such as when a patient is better able to hear oncoming traffic. They can also help to keep people engaged and able to participate in conversation with others. Reid said people with hearing loss who do not get the hearing aids may find themselves more socially isolated, which can contribute to depression.
Reid said the newer hearing aids can remove background noise.
Webb said it used to be there was a major change in the technology every few years but now there’s a significant change every three to six months. Most hearing aids are now wireless and digital.
The technology is likely to continue to change. Reid said in the future he expects to see more aids that are surgically implanted into the ear, including cochlear implants and what is termed a “bone-anchored hearing aid.”
Turnwald said her hope is that people know “we don’t bite and we’re here to help.” If someone tries a hearing aid, doesn’t like it and returns it, they can get their money back.
“You have nothing to lose,” she said.
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