The Truth About Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids

Honest Answers to Important Questions

By Vallery Kesterson, BA, BC-HIS, Board Certified Hearing Instrument Specialist

In 28 years of evaluating hearing, fitting and dispensing hearing aids in the Willamette Valley, I have   experienced the joy of knowing so many wonderful people, my patients, who have been invaluable in teaching me about the difficulty of living with hearing loss and the process of trying to overcome it.  I’ve also experienced a hearing instrument technology “boom” over those 28 years, and can honestly say that so many of my patients are hearing significantly better with today’s hearing aids than I ever thought possible.  

A primary goal in my work with my patients is to match realistic expectations of our hearing aid technology to the hearing loss and communication needs of each individual.  This goal is essential to the success of hearing aid use.  

My hope in this article is to bring to the forefront the truth of the hearing aid experience in today’s technology market, as I’ve experienced it in my education, training and through the experiences of my patients. I hope that these “Questions and Answers” will further your understanding and assist you in succeeding with your own hearing healthcare experience:

“If I am fit with the same hearing aids (technology) as my friend, will I hear as well as she seems to?”

It’s important to be careful comparing your experience of hearing aid benefit to that of others.  How well you do with hearing aids really varies from person to person depending upon the type and degree of hearing impairment. Similar to vision loss, very minor vision problems can be easily corrected with simple reading glasses, yet more severe problems, often involving eye disease, cannot be easily corrected at all.  A mild hearing loss is easily improved with hearing aids, yet a person with severe to profound hearing loss will generally appreciate less benefit, specifically difficulty appreciating the clarity of words. It is essential to ask your hearing professional what kind of general benefit you can expect from hearing aids, and recognize that it may be very different from that of a relative or friend. 

“I’m confused by the different hearing aid technology options available.  What really are the differences and do the more expensive choices really work better, or can I get by with the lower cost options?”

This question is best answered by working closely with your hearing professional to interpret which options will best meet your needs.  Generally, the more active your lifestyle, the greater need you may have for a more sophisticated technology (higher cost) to handle the challenges of noisier environments or greater appreciation of music. The quieter the lifestyle, a more simple technology (lower cost) may be recommended. But one word of caution: you may perceive your lifestyle as quiet, but may also encounter quite challenging environments to hear in, such as trying to hear conversation in the dining room of an Assistive Living or Retirement Residence.  Regardless of the technology level, the benefits of hearing improvement are also greatly influenced by an individual’s motivation to hear better and how much good residual hearing is appreciated.

“My parents struggled so much with their hearing aids. How much better are they generally performing today, and can I expect to have an easier time adjusting to the newer hearing aids?”

Hearing aids are still hearing “aids” and don’t fully correct for hearing loss, but can greatly improve our communication ability and quality of life. Yet, the newer technologies have absolutely improved a person’s hearing aid experience as compared to many years or decades ago,  such as less feedback or “whistling”, more comfort and easier communication in noisy environments and more comfortable fit with less visibility.

The digital processing of sound that most all hearing aids now provide allows even new users of hearing aids a more comfortable experience throughout the adjustment period.  All hearing aids purchased in Oregon come with a trial/refund period, insuring satisfaction or the option to return the instruments. Most hearing professionals “bundle “ a service plan into the purchase price, which should include programming and maintenance support for either the life of the hearing aids or at least to the end of the warranty period.  It is so important to work closely with your hearing professional and expect strong support with programming and counseling throughout the adjustment period and beyond.

“My kids tell me that I need to consider hearing aids, but I don’t think I have a hearing problem.  The problem is that they mumble and just need to speak more clearly. Can’t I just put off getting hearing aids until I notice more of a hearing problem?”

It is common to develop a hearing loss very slowly, which can make the hearing problem more noticeable to family members than to the person with the hearing loss. Denying the presence or awareness of hearing loss is unfortunately very common.  Also, one of the most common early signs of hearing loss is thinking that “people are mumbling”.  As a hearing loss develops, the high frequencies are most commonly affected, which reduces the ability to hear important consonant sounds, such as “s”, “f”, or “th”. This loss of hearing in the high frequencies creates the perception of “mumbling”, in that the volume of speech is fine, but the clarity of the words is missing. Hearing loss is a problem for the family, not just the individual with the loss, because it affects our communication connection to each other.  The sooner a person starts to wear hearing aids in the beginning stages of the hearing loss, the better they will do over time as the loss tends to worsen. 
Whose responsibility is it to make “successful communication” happen?  The answer is “both” people in the conversation. The “listener” is responsible for seeking help with hearing if needed. The “speaker” has a significant responsibility to follow good communication rules such as “looking at the person, getting their attention before speaking, and speaking a bit slower and more distinctly if needed.”