Are you having some hearing trouble? This may be why

A patient whose mother is having hearing difficulties asked me to write about the best way to purchase hearing aids. I’d like to begin with some background on hearing.

It goes without saying that hearing is one of our most important senses. It is critical for our quality of life as well as for safety and social interactions. It is estimated that 30 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, 65 percent of whom are younger than 65 years of age. It’s very concerning that one in 14 younger adults and one in 20 adolescents have measurable hearing loss. Since 1971 the number of Americans over three years old with hearing disorders has doubled.

The primary cause of hearing loss is environmental noise. The louder the volume (measured in decibels or dB) and/or the longer the exposure, the more likely it is for damage to occur. Repeated exposure to noise over 85 dB produced by things such as lawn mowers, truck traffic and shop tools, can lead to gradual hearing loss.

Playing music at a device’s maximum volume using headphones can deliver 105-120 dB, while using earbuds can add an additional 6-9 dB. Other causes of hearing loss include drugs that are toxic to the hearing organ, aging, and various other medical conditions.

Warning signs of hearing loss include difficulty understanding people (particularly in a crowd), asking people to repeat themselves, trouble hearing the TV or radio (hence turning up the volume), others complaining about one’s hearing, and avoidance of social situations where hearing is important.

Treatment of hearing loss begins with a good hearing assessment. Audiologists and hearing instrument specialists have different training and provide varying degrees of services.

Audiologists are the only hearing professionals who receive higher education training and are licensed by the state to do comprehensive evaluation and treatment of hearing loss in all age groups. Audiologists typically do four years of additional training after college and earn the Doctor of Audiology degree.

Hearing instrument specialists, on the other hand, are not required to undergo nearly as much training. Indiana requires them to have a high school diploma or GED, pass an examination, and pay a $60 fee. They must also receive supervision by a hearing aid dealer before they can sell hearing aids.

My preference is to refer patients to an audiologist for diagnosis and treatment. Most cases of hearing nerve damage are treatable by amplification using hearing aids though simply purchasing a set of hearing aids should not be the end of the treatment process. Treatment also involves verifying the fit of the hearing aids, providing counseling on their use, and doing follow up.

There have been huge advancements in hearing aid technology in the last decade. The available models and their complexity requires someone who is skilled in prescribing and managing them appropriately. Hearing aids are expensive, but the ability to hear properly is critical for safety and quality of life. The cost of a hearing aid purchased from an audiologist usually includes not only the fitting, but also adjustments and maintenance. Often these services are not covered when purchasing at discount retailers.

Remember that prevention is the best medicine. Be aware that loud and/or prolonged noise can cause hearing loss. Evaluate your surroundings so you can avoid noise and wear hearing protection if you can’t. You can measure ambient sound with your smart phone microphone using the free NIOSH SLM (Sound Level Meter) app. iPhone and Apple Watch users can also set up environmental sound monitoring in the Health app. A note to parents with kids with mobile music players like iPhones – use the maximum volume parental controls that are available on the devices to decrease the chances of hearing damage.

Dr. John Roberts is a member of the Franciscan Physician Network specializing in Family Medicine as well as the Deputy County Health Officer in Montgomery County.