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Not Your Grandpa’s Hearing Aid: Common Misperceptions about Hearing Loss

Apr 30, 2016 12:05PM ● Published by North Hills Monthly magazine

Gallery: Hearing Loss [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Jennifer Monahan and Vanessa Orr

Do people around you mumble a lot? Do they complain that the volume on your TV is too loud? Is it tough to make out what someone at the other end of the conference table just said? If so, it might be time to get your hearing checked by an audiologist. Misunderstandings about hearing loss, however, frequently keep people from making appointments.

“Hearing loss is insidious,” said Dr. R. Patrick Francis, who has 30 years of experience in the field and owns Francis Audiology Associates in Wexford. Because hearing loss is often gradual, Francis explained, many people do not realize it is happening. 

Oftentimes, people close to the individual compensate by repeating themselves or speaking more loudly, which enables many people to get by without recognizing that their hearing has deteriorated. While everyone thinks they will know when they cannot hear as well, said Francis, most patients do not realize they have an issue until family members or friends tell them they need to get their hearing checked.

“The number one thing people say when they come in for the first time is that their family mumbles,” said Dr. Nicole Schott, an audiologist with Swift Audiology in the North Hills who has been practicing since 2013. “Usually they are the last to notice that there’s a problem.”

Another misconception is that hearing loss is normal as people age, or that it only happens to elderly people.

“Hearing is either normal or it isn’t,” said Francis, explaining that hearing loss is not age-dependent. Francis treats infants and children as well as adults and said that the biggest population with hearing loss is people between the ages of 44 and 64. 

Francis has seen an increased willingness to seek assistance among the Baby Boomer generation. “That generation wants to be active, and to be their best selves,” he explained. 

Schott has also noticed that people assume a certain amount of hearing loss is normal with age, and challenges that assumption as she is particularly concerned that this mistaken belief might keep people from seeking help. “Hearing loss affects quality of life, including physical, mental, and emotional health,” said Schott, adding that recent medical studies show that untreated hearing loss can increase an individual’s chance of developing dementia five-fold.

Both Francis and Schott emphasize that people hear with their brain, rather than with their ears. Over time, untreated hearing loss causes the brain’s neural pathways to atrophy, which has been shown to be a contributing factor to the development of dementia. “Early intervention makes a big difference. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome,” said Francis.

People who work in construction areas, teens who have noise exposure through consistently loud music, and seasonal hunters are also groups who frequently have some degree of hearing loss.

Another common misperception is that hearing aids do not work, or that there is nothing an audiologist can do to help. That belief is simply inaccurate, according to Francis, who said that 90 to 95 percent of people with hearing loss can be helped with the assistance of hearing aids; the remaining group can usually be treated with surgery or medicine.

Hearing aids have improved tremendously in recent years, and new technology allows hearing aids to adapt to each patient’s specific needs and preferences. Hearing aids today can utilize Bluetooth technology, which means they can stream TV, phone or tablet sounds directly through the hearing device, and many are water-resistant. Prices range from about $800 to a few thousand dollars. It is important for patients to work directly with an audiologist, explained Francis, so that the doctor can help match the appropriate device to the individual’s particular situation—taking price, cosmetic preferences and hearing needs into consideration.

So how does someone know when it is time to make an appointment?

“People think that their hearing loss is not real because it can seem situational, as in, ‘I can hear the priest when he speaks at church; I just can’t hear my neighbor’s wife. She mumbles,’” explained Francis. “When you start to notice these little things, it’s time to make an appointment.”

“If you’re not enjoying the things you used to, like going to movies or restaurants, because you can’t hear the conversation, have a hearing evaluation,” added Schott, adding that many area audiologists offer a free hearing evaluation for first-time patients. 

She also said most people do not realize that Pennsylvania law requires that all individuals receive a 30-day trial period for hearing aids with a money-back guarantee. “There is no reason not to try it,” she said.

Dr. Lisa Chandonais of Cranberry Hearing and Balance Center, located in Seven Fields, says that many of the patients who visit her are actually surprised to find out that they have hearing loss. “They believe that they hear fine—that others are mumbling, don’t talk loud enough or talk too fast,” she explained. “A lot of them are shocked when they take a hearing test and may even remain in denial because they are not ready to deal with the fact that their hearing loss is permanent.”

Part of the reason for this reaction is that hearing aids are often tied to the perception that they are only used by those who are old and aging, according to Dr. Chandonais. “This is not true; hearing aids are worn by a wide variety of people whose hearing has been affected for different reasons—yes, they are worn by people 50 and older, but also by really young children, and even young adults who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss,” she explained. 

As an audiologist serving the Pittsburgh area, Dr. Chandonais treats a lot of patients who have suffered hearing loss from working in steel mills or from serving in the military, or in jobs that have exposed them to long-term noise damage. “People don’t understand how damaging noise over time, or even in certain quick instances, can be,” she explained, adding that she also sees patients with hearing damage from hunting. “A lot of it depends on the type of noise in general.”

While an audiologist can prescribe hearing aids to help with the problem, Dr. Chandonais said that people must be motivated to find the right hearing aid, and the right fit, in order to make it work. “Depending on where you go, you will encounter people of various skill levels and different levels of pricing—it’s hard not to get jaded by the whole experience if it doesn't go well,” she said. 

She also cautions against buying one hearing aid instead of two to save money. “A lot of people factor in cost and decide that one hearing aid will be fine, but there is usually hearing loss in both ears. Due to the effects of auditory deprivation and the complex way that our brain processes sound, which allows it to perform better when binaural hearing is possible, wearing two hearing aids to amplify sound is often recommended in these cases,” she explained. “Only in very rare cases does one work better.”

Michael Rametta

 Michael Rametta of Rametta Audiology & Hearing Aid Center agrees that cost is a factor in many people’s decisions, though there are misperceptions in this area as well. “People may think that hearing aids cost too much, but what they are missing is that most audiologists or other practitioners offer bundled packages that include not only the hearing aid, but visits before they buy the hearing aid, as well as visits one, two or even three years afterwards,” he explained. “You’re not just paying for two pieces of plastic that you stick in your ears.”

Another misperception that patients have is that hearing aids just don’t work. “It’s probably the number one concern that they tell me, but it’s often based on what hearing aids were like five, 10 or even 20 years ago,” he said. “The small computer processors are so much better now, and can do what you want them to do without feedback; you can hear people speaking much more clearly.”

There are also a lot of options in terms of services and costs. “A hearing aid doesn’t have to cost $5,000—it all depends on what your needs are,” Rametta explained, adding that he encourages patients to ask a lot of questions. “Don’t just price shop; service shop. There’s nothing wrong with going to two to three places and checking online reviews; you want to work with a person that you can trust and with whom you have a good rapport.”

While there are always questions about cost, Robert W. Petruso of R.W. Petruso Hearing & Audiology Center says that most people understand that there’s truth in the adage that you get what you pay for. “There’s a lot of advanced technology in a hearing aid to make it work,” he explained, adding that those who have had hearing aids that didn’t work as well as they would have liked in the past would probably benefit from those created with today’s technology.

“There are also misperceptions about how large today’s hearing aids are,” he continued, adding that today’s smaller models can fit clear down in the ear canal, “as well as how long hearing aids and batteries will last.”

While some people expect that they will get 100 percent of their hearing back as the result of wearing hearing aids, Petruso said that it depends on the individual and his or her condition. The good news is that those with hearing problems are getting checked out earlier, instead of suffering from hearing loss for a longer period of time. 

“The population I see is definitely getting younger—they’re coming in much earlier than they did in the past,” he explained. “Instead of spending years going without hearing, they are more aware of the problem and taking care of it more quickly, just like they do with any other health issue.” 

Want to learn more? Visit these websites for more information:

Cranberry Hearing and Balance Center:  www.cranberryhearing.com

Francis Audiology Associates:  www.francisaudiology.com

R.W. Petruso Hearing & Audiology Center:  www.petrusohearing.com

Rametta Audiology & Hearing Aid Center:  www.ramettahearing.com

Swift Audiology:  https://swiftaudiology.com


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