June 1, 2009 -- If you've heard that hearing aids don't work, you've heard wrong.
But you've also heard wrong if you think the answer to hearing loss is simply sticking a hearing aid in your ear, an in-depth study by Consumer Reports shows.
The study had three components. Consumer Reports followed 12 people with hearing loss for six months as they shopped for and used their hearing aids. It conducted a national survey of 1,100 people who bought a hearing aid in the last three years and lab-tested 44 different hearing aids.
The bottom line: If you suffer hearing loss, the brand of hearing aid you select is far less important than the process of hearing restoration, says Consumer Reports Senior Editor Tobie Stanger, who directed the hearing aid report.
"The reason so many hearing aids end up in drawers is people don't understand the adapting you need to do to get the most out of them," Stanger tells WebMD. "Expectations have to be tempered. Hearing aids aren't like glasses. You can't suddenly put them on and hear as you did before. The brain has to adapt."
"People who lose the ability to hear quiet sounds expect a hearing aid will fix that, and they are disappointed," speech and hearing scientist Arthur Boothroyd, PhD, tells WebMD. "They think that if they just get a better hearing aid it will address this problem. But part of the process is learning that a hearing aid will help but will not restore normal hearing."
Hearing Loss Treatment
The "process" of hearing rehabilitation has several elements:
- Having a doctor diagnose the cause of your hearing loss
- Getting your hearing tested
- Getting the right hearing aid
- Getting your hearing aid fitted properly
- Testing your hearing aid in real-life situations
- Practice, practice, practice
- Follow-up visits with your hearing-loss professional
People who saw an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) reported the most satisfaction with their care, except for veterans, who reported excellent care through Veterans Affairs facilities. Stanger warns that not all otolaryngologists specialize in hearing rehabilitation. She recommends seeing one that works in partnership with an audiologist, a hearing professional.
"There are all kinds of different causes of hearing loss: It could be earwax, it could be an ear infection, or something more serious than hearing loss caused by dying of hair cells in the ear canal, which is the cause of most age-related hearing loss," Stanger says. "That is the reason why it's important to go to a medical doctor first to find out what really is the cause of your hearing loss."
But once you know your hearing loss isn't due to a treatable condition, you have other options. Just under one in five people surveyed by Consumer Reports went to a name-brand hearing aid store, while 30% went to independent hearing-treatment providers -- non-MD hearing professionals.
Consumer Reports warns that not all hearing professionals are equal. Audiologists generally must have a doctoral degree (usually the AuD), pass national tests, and have extensive clinical training. Hearing-aid specialists have from six months to two years of supervised training or a two-year college degree, and in most states must pass licensing tests.
However, the study found that both types of hearing professionals made mistakes in fitting the hearing aids that the 12 shoppers bought. About two-thirds of the time, they ended up with the wrong hearing aid settings.
Which hearing aid was best? The testers from Consumer Reports found that the behind-the-ear, open-fit models worked best for the vast majority of people. But they weren't cheap; these models range in price from $1,850 to $2,700 apiece.
Consumer Reports did not compare brands, but it did test some nonprescription hearing aids. These were inexpensive, but Consumer Reports gave them low marks.
How to Hear Better With Your Hearing Aid
Hearing rehabilitation is much more than getting fitted with the proper hearing aid, says Boothroyd, now scholar in residence at San Diego State University.
"The one factor that always emerges from hearing-rehabilitation studies is the time people spend practicing," Boothroyd says. "A lot of people, depending on their personality, will not be deterred, and they will spend time doing what needs to be done. Others will be intimidated and will withdraw from communication situations. For them, it might be better to have formal training materials."
Self-motivated individuals don't just stick their hearing aids in their ears and go home. They go out right away and test them in different situations: at parties, in theaters, in front of the TV, in quiet conversations, at restaurants, and in crowds. They make note of the situations where they have the most difficulty, and then work with their hearing professional on improving their hearing in these situations.
One highly self-motivated individual -- Brenda Battat, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America -- told Consumer Reports that she practiced listening to long-winded messages at the 800 numbers of the IRS and Social Security Administration.
But there's lots of help out there. Support groups, often organized by hearing professionals, help people practice hearing in different situations.
"Local groups can tell you, 'Hey, at this theater they show first-run movies with captions,' or 'That theater has a special sound system for people with hearing impairment.' Those groups can tune you in to that stuff and discuss strategies," Stanger says.
Boothroyd notes that there are computer programs that people can use to improve their hearing skills. Whichever method is used, he says, time on task -- practice -- is the most important part.
"There are many issues involved in hearing rehabilitation," Boothroyd says. "It is not just information and learning, but also psychosocial issues of adjustment. People have different personalities and react differently to the challenges posed by hearing loss."
The hearing report appears in the July issue of Consumer Reports.