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The New Hearing Aids

They're sure not what Grandpa wore.

Do You Need a Hearing Aid?

Thanks to rock 'n' roll, iPods, and a penchant for loud music, more people need hearing aids at a younger age than in the past, notes Bowie. "We see fairly severe hearing loss caused by the indiscretions of youth," he says. "We live in a fairly noisy society, with loud machinery, loud work environments, loud noise in general. Also, people are living longer, and hearing loss naturally occurs as we age."

The most common form of hearing loss - affecting one in four people over 65 -- is called sensorineural (nerve) hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs when something like noise, illness, injury, or infection damages either the auditory nerve that controls hearing or the hair cells in the ear that help transmit sound.

Less common is a form of hearing loss called conductive hearing loss. This is caused by earwax buildup, fluid buildup from an ear infection, or a punctured eardrum. Some people have a mixed form of hearing loss - both conductive and sensorineural.

While conductive hearing loss can often be corrected (with medical or surgical treatment), sensorineural hearing loss usually cannot be reversed. That's why hearing aids were created.

To get to the root of your hearing problem - and figure out the answer -- an audiologist will first perform a hearing test. From this test, the audiologist can determine whether hearing aids will help, and which hearing aids are best for your needs. The size of the hearing aid - and the technology - must be decided.

Some people want a simple hearing aid to hear the TV better, and appearance isn't an issue. "But for someone whose day involves conference room meetings, subway trains, noisy restaurants, and church - all these different environments - they're going to want more flexibility, like a directional microphone in a higher-end hearing aid," Dibkey tells WebMD.

Choosing a Hearing Aid

In the 1970s, the "conventional analog" style of hearing aid debuted, with the volume set to fit your hearing loss. With a separate volume control wheel, you could make adjustments to match the environment you were in. Later models were computer programmed but offered limited improvements in filtering out background noise.

Today, less than 10% of people use conventional hearing aids, Fabry tells WebMD. "Nearly all hearing aids today are digital -- although digital doesn't necessarily translate to expensive. Digital hearing aids are now available in every price category."

Hearing aids are traditionally not covered by insurance plans. However, in recent years some insurance plans have developed contracts with providers for certain hearing aid models -- often with out-of-pocket costs if you choose to upgrade. Employed people may be able to use money set aside in Flexible Spending Accounts - or they can contact their state rehabilitation agency or commission for help.

"Many hearing loss centers offer payment plans to help patients spread out the cost of the aids," Dibkey says.

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