Sound advice for life

Helen Keller, blind and deaf from the age of 19 months, once declared she considered being deaf more isolating than being blind. So one of the best reasons to get expert advice on the state of your hearing is to avoid the loneliness of poor hearing.  

The Canadian Association of the Deaf estimates there may be 2.8 million Canadians who are hard of hearing, and the Canadian Hearing Society concludes that better than half of people over the age of 50 are affected. The most common hearing impairment due to aging is presbycusis, a problem of the inner ear that makes it difficult to hear higher pitched sounds important for understanding speech, including s, sh, f and th.

A physician checks for medical causes of hearing loss and orders a hearing test by an audiologist (a professional with at least a master’s degree in measuring and treating hearing loss) or a hearing aid dispenser. A patient consulting an audiologist without a referral will be sent to a doctor if the audiologist suspects the hearing loss is medical in origin.

The hearing assessment
Sue Wittrup, an audiologist at Uxbridge Hearing Centre in Uxbridge, Ont., says a aring test takes about 45 minutes and costs about $60 in Ontario. Beeps in a range of frequencies and loudness are sounded through earphones until the patient doesn’t hear and respond to them. Low tones coincide with vowel sounds of speech while the high ones correspond to consonants. Wittrup also asks the patient to repeat words like “pin,” “dad” and “up,” to help her assess how accurately he or she hears speech. The final result is a picture of how well the person hears at different frequencies and sound levels.

Even people who have hearing aids should be tested annually, she says, because their hearing can change and adjustments to the aids can often be made to accommodate this.

But Wittrup cautions against unrealistic expectations. A hearing aid can’t make hearing normal again but will help most people distinguish speech more clearly. Even the best devices don’t eliminate background noise, the most difficult issue for most people in adapting to a hearing aid. A period of adjustment is required as the brain gets used to this new way of dealing with sound, and a good hearing aid provider will be eager to ease this process.

Choosing a hearing aid
Today’s devices aren’t like the ones your grandma wore. Like most electronic instruments, they are extremely refined. Behind-the-ear (BTE) aids can accommodate severe hearing losses; in-the-ear (ITE) aids fit in the outer ear and may include a telecoil that makes it easier to use the telephone; in-the-canal (ITC) aids are smaller and less noticeable but harder for stiff hands to manipulate; completely-in-the-canal (CIC) aids are even smaller and are more expensive.

The technology differs significantly, too. Least costly are the analog hearing aids. Some can be programmed to cope with different sound environments, and the wearer adjusts them with a button on the aid or a remote control device. Wittrup thinks the enhanced clarity people notice with the new digital hearing aids makes them a better, if a bit more costly, choice. Their computer chips can be programmed to suit the wearer’s hearing loss, amplifying speech and more effectively dealing with background noise.

Prices and government assistance for buying hearing aids vary across Canada. Ontario caps hearing aid prices and has the lowest average costs in the country, ranging from $800 to $2,500 an ear.

She has noticed patients do better with hearing aids in both ears. Wearing two aids is good for the brain, Wittrup points out. Stimulating both ears causes activity in both sides of the brain.

Signs to watch for

• People seem to mumble.
• Regularly asking people to repeat themselves.
• Family members complain radio or TV is too loud.
• Difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments or on the phone.
• Not hearing doorbells, alarm clocks and fire alarms.

Where to find help
Canadian Hearing Society
416-964-9595 or 1-800-537-6030

Canadian Hard of Hearing Association
613-526-1584 or 1-800-263-8068

Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists
613-567-9968 or 1-800-259-8519

Hearing Foundation of Canada
416-364-4060 or 1-866-432-7968