Listen Up: Hearing Aids Are Effective!

Oct. 10, 2000 -- Do you have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are speaking to you? Does your family ever tell you that the TV or radio is too loud? If either answer is yes, odds are that you haven't spoken to your doctor about it, or if you have, the hearing aid that was suggested is still at the store. Now hear this: Hearing aids work, according to the first-ever major study of three popular types of hearing aids.

The study, which appears in the Oct. 11 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that three types of commonly used hearing aids improved speech recognition and reduced verbal communication problems in both quiet and noisy situations, when compared with no hearing aids at all.

As many as 28 million Americans -- including one-third of senior citizens -- have nerve-related hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs in either the sensory mechanism of the ear, called the cochlea, or in the nerve that sends the sound impulses to the brain.

This type of hearing loss can be helped by hearing aids. But only 20% of people who can benefit from hearing aids actually use them, for a variety of reasons including denial of the problem, cosmetic concerns, and/or the fact that many primary care doctors are not informed about the benefits of hearing aids.

"The take-home message is that hearing aids provide benefit and are effective in many different situations and they enhance communication," study author Lucille B. Beck, PhD, national director of audiology and speech pathology services for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., tells WebMD.

"It provides scientific evidence for the medical community to encourage patients to seek help for their hearing problems," she says.

The study looked at 360 people with nerve-related hearing loss. All participants tested three types of hearing aids or circuits that differ in how they amplify sound -- the linear peak clipper, the compression limiter, and the wide dynamic range compressor -- in quiet and noisy conditions, then completed surveys about which hearing aid they liked best and why.

Overall, participants preferred the compression limiter and wide dynamic range compressor types of circuits to the linear peak clipper, but all three provided benefits compared with unaided hearing.

Hearing aids are a treatment choice for hearing loss, and patients with hearing loss should be referred by their primary care doctor for an assessment and evaluation by an audiologist or an otolaryngologist, Beck says.

"People with hearing loss should work with a professional to have the characteristics of amplifying circuits fitted to compensate for their individual hearing loss and listening needs," she adds.

Beck suggests setting hearing goals such as "I want to hear in noisy situations," "I want to hear my grandchildren," "I want to eat dinner in a restaurant and hear what people are saying," or "I want to communicate effectively in my job." Then patients can be properly fitted and evaluated for a hearing aid.

"Many hearing aids are programmable and have different circuits, and professionals will work with you to fine-tune the characteristics," she tells WebMD. "You participate in your rehabilitation."

In addition, "hearing aids have improved significantly and are much more cosmetically acceptable," she says. "They are very small and comfortable but, of course, we shouldn't let cosmetics be more important than communication," Beck says.

According to Seth Dank, MA, CCC-A, a New York state-licensed audiologist, today's patients have numerous choices of size and technology, from basic amplifiers that have been around for 20 years, to modern-day digital hearing aids.

"It does take a while for someone to realize that they are experiencing hearing loss. Usually family members or friends might notice first. Hearing loss is a gradual process, and sometimes the person who has a loss gets used to it, so it is not noticeable to them," he says.

Usually people with hearing loss have some problems communicating and/or hearing people talking or hearing the television, or they may feel like they can hear but can't understand, Dank says.

But help is available.

"Once you notice hearing loss, come in to an audiologist for an evaluation where he or she will run several basic tests to determine the cause of the hearing loss and the degree of the problem," he says.

Then the audiologist can help the patient decide which available hearing aid is right for him or her -- factoring in both cosmetic concerns and price, Dank says.