January 12, 2016

How to tell if it’s time for a hearing aid


There’s more to the decision than merely buying a hearing device.

You suspect your hearing is fading based on how often you ask people to repeat themselves, or other signs. What’s your next step? Don’t run out and try to get a hearing aid just yet.

Find a certified audiologist. A full communication needs assessment – not just a hearing test – is crucial. Choosing hearing aids and other devices that can help you communicate better is a highly individualized process.

Jill Gruenwald, an audiologist and assistant director of the Adult Hearing Aid Program at Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, said testing can be completed in one appointment, but it’s not as simple as considering volume alone. Assessments include evaluating the health of the ear itself to rule out infections or disease; a hearing test that takes into account the softest sounds people can hear, as well as pitch; and a customized plan for care.

Whether a hearing aid is suitable depends on how much the loss is impacting the person’s day-to-day life and other individualized needs, Gruenwald said. Some people function fine with some degree of loss – for example, if they have boisterous families or there’s no one in the home to be bothered by loud televisions. “There is no magical hearing loss that says ‘now you have to have a hearing aid,’ ” Gruenwald said.

Hearing aids can be good options for people who need help with their general hearing, and who want to put a device in in the morning and leave it in all day. But choosing a hearing aid isn’t as simple as placing an order.

“Hearing aids aren’t cars,” said Todd Ricketts, Ph.D., professor and director of Graduate Studies, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “The best one for you is not the best one for someone else. You’re not car shopping; you’re shopping for something to address your communication needs. That might be a hearing aid, that might be counseling, that might be a combination of a lot of different things.”

Once a person decides to get a hearing aid, the most important next step is getting a proper fit, so you will get the most benefit from this tool. Bill Wilkerson Center’s Hearing Aid Clinic, for example, uses the latest in evidence-based practices, including “real-ear measures,” which Gruenwald calls the gold standard for fitting.

A set of hearing aids can cost $2,000 to $6,000. More insurance companies cover them now than in the past, Gruenwald said, but most people still must pay the cost out of pocket unless they can find other assistance. It’s more important to choose the device that works best for you rather than thinking you’re getting the Cadillac of hearing aids if you pay more.

“People think the more you spend, the better you will hear, and that’s not necessarily true,” Gruenwald said.

Another important point: Hearing aid technology has improved dramatically – with the ability to sync with Bluetooth, reduce background noise, communicate with wireless microphones, adjust with smartphone apps and more – but the devices can’t fully return hearing to “normal.” Clear communication strategies are very important.

“People have huge differences in how well they understand speech and noise,” Ricketts said.

The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center specializes in ear, nose and throat diseases, and communication disorders such as hearing, speech, language and voice problems. Learn more here.

Read these tips to figure out if you might have hearing loss.

Already know that you have hearing loss? Read our tips for communicating more effectively.