When people struggle with untreated hearing loss, their quality of life can deteriorate. They may suffer from higher levels of stress, poorer physical health, greater social isolation, and difficulties at work, school, and recreational activities.
As reported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, roughly 30 million people in the U.S. who are 12 or older experience some degree of hearing loss in both ears, and an estimated 28.8 million adults would find the use of a hearing aid beneficial.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
When people experience hearing loss, it’s usually sensorineural. Sensorineural hearing loss stems from damage to the auditory nerve or to sensory cells in the inner ear.
There are several causes, including:
- Meningitis, measles, or other types of serious infections.
- Being subjected to high levels of noise on a regular basis.
Another type of hearing loss is conductive, meaning that problems with the structure of the outer ear or middle ear make it difficult for sound to flow through to the inner ear. Conductive hearing loss can stem from certain infections, injuries, and structural abnormalities. Sometimes, people experience a mix of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
What Are Hearing Aids?
Made up of microphones, amplifiers, and speakers, these electronic devices help people cope with the impairments of sensorineural hearing loss.
The basic varieties of hearing aids differ in where they’re placed and how visible they tend to be. These varieties include:
- Behind-the-ear hearing aids: One part of this hearing aid is tucked behind the ear and contains important electronics. In some designs, a tube connects the behind-the-ear component to an earmold that covers the opening of the ear. Other designs allow a narrow tube to thread directly into the ear and leave the opening largely unblocked.
- In-the-ear hearing aids: These fit neatly over the opening of the ear. Some of them have a full-shell design that covers the entire bowl-shaped depression of the ear. Others come in a half-shell design that’s less visible.
- In-the-canal hearing aids: These are the smallest hearing aids. Some of them can fit entirely in the ear canal, while others go in partially.
Each of these hearing aids has certain advantages and drawbacks. For example, an in-the-canal hearing aid is less noticeable, but it generally doesn’t have enough power to help people with severe hearing loss.
Another dimension to consider is whether the hearing aid is analog or digital. Digital hearing aids rely on more cutting-edge technology. They’re more sophisticated and adaptable to different environments and personal needs, and they may be capable of interacting with smartphones or other devices. But analog devices have their own advantages, particularly lower prices.
Over-the-Counter Hearing Devices
If you’ve decided that you need a hearing aid, it may occur to you to make an over-the-counter purchase. In 2017, Congress voted for the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, which was then signed into law. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on the regulations that will determine which devices can be legally marketed as over-the-counter hearing aids.
So far, a device from Bose has received federal approval to be sold as an over-the-counter hearing aid. This aid will be only available to adults and is recommended for people who have mild-to-moderate hearing loss. Users can adjust how the aid fits and program it on their own. Its availability will depend on federal and state laws governing the sale of hearing aids.
There are other devices that may not yet have received federal approval, so the companies that produce them may not be marketing them officially as hearing aids. However, they may still offer some benefits to adults whose hearing loss is relatively mild. One example is this device from Nuheara, which has a number of sophisticated features, including allowing people to perform some assessments of their hearing.
Prescription Hearing Aids
The path to buying a prescription hearing aid generally begins by meeting with professionals who can diagnose, treat, and help you manage hearing loss.
People under the age of 18 must meet with a licensed physician first to determine the cause of their hearing loss, and a medical exam is sometimes recommended for adults as well. Your hearing loss may stem from a short-term and treatable medical condition. It’s also possible that your hearing impairment won’t be remedied by a hearing aid, and you’ll need another kind of intervention.
Even if you don’t initially meet with a licensed physician, you’ll typically undergo a comprehensive assessment from an audiologist, a professional specializing in hearing impairments. Depending on the findings of the exam, the audiologist may refer you to a physician. The audiologist may also guide you in the purchase of a hearing aid and help you adjust it to your personal needs.
You can purchase your prescription hearing aid from a licensed audiologist or certain licensed dispensers. With professional guidance, you’ll be in a better position to determine which hearing aid suits you best. As such, there are several features to consider, including:
- The extent to which the hearing aid can cut down on background noise.
- Rechargeable batteries.
- The ability to adjust the settings with a remote control.
- Microphones aligned to pick up sounds from a particular source.
- Different settings are customized to particular environments or situations.
- The ability to interact with or respond to other devices, such as computers, phones, and TVs.
Selecting a hearing aid may become a complex process involving multiple attempts at finding a device that responds to your needs and is comfortable to wear and use. Especially if your hearing loss is moderate or severe, you’ll benefit from professional assistance and more sophisticated technologies.
Which Is Best?
The type of hearing aid that’s best suited to you depends on multiple factors, including the severity of your hearing loss, your age, and your budget.
In many cases, consulting with a physician or audiologist will help you understand your hearing loss and find the best ways to treat or manage it. However, you should always research hearing aids and similar devices on your own and become more informed about the available choices.