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Should you be screened for a hearing problem?

When to get tested so you don’t miss out on the sounds around you.

“What?” How often do you have to ask this one-word question during conversations? If the answer is often, you could have a hearing problem.

Nearly one-third of adults ages 65 to 74 and almost 50% of those age 75 or older have at least some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. First to go are the high-frequency sounds—the “s” and “th” sounds in words. Later, lower-frequency sounds become muffled too.

Hearing loss is an inevitable part of getting older, says Dr. David Vernick, assistant clinical professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School. With hearing aids and other treatments available, you don’t have to settle for silence—yet many of us do. We’re willing to sacrifice conversations, concerts, and phone calls rather than wear a hearing aid. According to one survey, just 14% of adults who need hearing aids actually wear them.

When to get screened

The time to get screened is when you—or someone close to you—notices a problem with your hearing. “People usually go for screening if they often have to say ‘what?’ and their partner or colleagues say they need to get their hearing checked,” Dr. Vernick says.

You might have a hearing problem if you

  • have trouble following conversations or picking up voices in noisy rooms

  • have to turn your TV or radio up loud to hear it

  • need to read lips or strain to hear

  • hear a ringing, hissing, or roaring sound in your ear (these are signs of tinnitus, which can be a symptom of hearing loss)

Treating hearing loss

If any of these issues has been bothering you, visit your primary care provider. The doctor will first check for problems that can prevent sound waves from reaching the inner ear, such as earwax buildup, fluid in the ear, or a punctured eardrum. These are causes of conductive hearing loss, which can usually be reversed with treatment.

If none of these problems is to blame, you’ll have a hearing test done. During the test, you’ll listen for low-frequency, mid-frequency, and high-frequency tones. If you can’t hear the sounds, you might have sensorineural hearing loss—damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. At that point, your doctor will send you to an otolaryngologist (ENT)—a doctor who treats problems related to the ears, nose, and throat—or an audiologist, a specialist who screens for hearing problems and helps fit patients for hearing aids.

Hearing solutions

The solution to most age-related hearing loss is to wear a hearing aid. You might immediately picture an image of your mother or grandmother with a big, clunky device in her ear, but hearing aid technology has been significantly streamlined since their time. Today’s hearing aids are much smaller and higher-tech than their predecessors. Many of them hide inside the ear canal or behind the ear, making them almost invisible.

image

Hearing aids are smaller than ever before. The model on the left is a receiver in the canal (RIC). The receiver sits in an earbud worn in the ear canal. The hearing aid on the right sits completely in the ear canal.

Modern hearing aids are also digital and adaptable. They can adjust automatically as you go from one environment to another—for example, from a noisy cocktail party into a quiet corridor. Many hearing aids even come equipped with Bluetooth technology, “so they can go wirelessly to the phone or TV, or into a theater,” Dr. Vernick says.

Your audiologist will recommend a particular type of hearing aid based on the results of your hearing test and your typical listening situations. Try on different models until you find one that will be comfortable and small enough for you to wear on a daily basis.

An alternative to a traditional hearing aid is an implantable one. The advantages to implanted hearing aids are that you never have to take them out, even in the bath or shower. However, these devices require surgery, which always carries risk, and they’re still being studied. “The technology is still early in its development,” cautions Dr. Vernick. Cochlear implants (small, surgically implanted electronic devices) are also available, but they’re only for people with very severe or total hearing loss.

If you’re not quite ready for a hearing aid, set yourself up for better hearing by taking these steps:

  • Try to have conversations in quiet environments. For example, have dinner with friends at an intimate, quiet restaurant rather than a big noisy one.

  • Look into assistive devices, such as a personal amplifier to boost sound and reduce background noise. You can learn more about these devices through the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/Pages/Assistive-Devices.aspx).

  • Finally, don’t live in silence. See your doctor as soon as possible, so you can get your hearing problem diagnosed and be a part of the conversation again.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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