According to a recent story published by Forbes.com, “Among adults between the ages of 45 and 64, 2.8% of men and 1.9% of women use a hearing aid.” But, when it comes to the number of people impacted by hearing loss — in at least one ear — upwards of 1.5 billion worldwide are affected. Despite how hearing aids can improve hearing and quality of life for those with hearing impairment, it’s not uncommon for those in need of hearing aids to be cautious or even repulsed by the thought of wearing them.
We sit down with Kory Castro, board-certified hearing instrument specialist and co-owner at Beltone Arizona, to learn more about the evolution of hearing aids and how they can dramatically improve the hearing and — for many — overall quality of life for hearing-impaired persons.
Az Business: Why do you think hearing aids still often have such a negative stigma attached to them?
Kory Castro: I remember 15 years ago when I first started in hearing care, I would have new patients come into my office for a hearing evaluation. I would do a hearing test for them and if they had a hearing loss I would recommend hearing aids. When it got to the point of talking about hearing aids I would always ask what they thought about having to wear one.
The answers that I would get from people would generally be the same; “hearing aids are expensive, bulky, ugly, they whistle, they just make things louder and they don’t sound good or natural.” Most common of all: “I don’t want people to see me wearing one and think I’m old”.
I can say that most people who are new to hearing aids do not get very excited about the thought of needing to use one. After hearing them talk about how they really feel about hearing aids I would proudly show them what the latest technology looked like, felt like and sounded like in their ears (which of course was nothing like they thought it was going to be). I discovered that patients were basing their views on what their parents or grandparents had been using and simply didn’t know how much the technology had changed over the years.
Now, many hearing aids are so inconspicuous you can hardly see them. Can you explain how the clunky hearing aids from the past have evolved?
KC: Hearing aid technology today has vastly improved in pretty much every category. They’re smaller, more comfortable to wear, more robust in reducing background noise and improving speech clarity, easier to use, connected to smartphones and more affordable thanks to the increasing prevalence of insurance coverage (almost half of people on Medicare have a hearing aid benefit through medicare advantage plans).
These improvements in technology have come through very expensive and time-consuming research done by manufacturers with one goal in mind, to improve speech clarity in as challenging situations as possible. Hearing aids have evolved from simple analog circuits to AI-powered digital circuits that automatically adjust to different sound environments.
Hearing aids in the past were not as capable in helping to hear better in noisy places, with many people complaining that they just make everything louder. Today’s technology is not only better at cleaning up unwanted background noise, but it is also so powerful that it can detect that unwanted noise in between the syllables of someone’s words and filter it out to make their voice more clear. They can also be made to fit virtually any kind of hearing loss and sit outside of the ear or deep inside the ear canal.
What are some of the other misunderstandings, misnomers and confusion you hear from patients surrounding hearing aids?
KC: People with hearing loss often don’t have an issue with hearing sounds (some people do), they have an issue of not hearing a certain frequency range of sounds, which leads to more difficulty in understanding conversations. In other words, most people with hearing loss hear fine, but they lack clarity.
Think of when something sounds “muffled,” you can hear the sound, but it’s harder to make it out. That typically means that you’re not hearing high-frequency sounds. This is why when a hard-of-hearing person asks you to repeat what you said and you say it back at a louder volume, the hard-of-hearing person asks you to stop yelling at them. They can hear you just fine, but they can’t understand you because they are missing those key high-frequency speech cues that make your speech audible.
You can experience this yourself by covering your mouth with your hand, talking out loud and raising your voice — notice how your voice still sounds muffled even when raising your volume. Now imagine always hearing people that way and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to experience high-frequency hearing loss. For those hard-of-hearing people, this is the same reason why turning up the TV or phone volume doesn’t always help to make it clearer. These are all signs that someone might have a hearing loss and should consider getting their hearing evaluated.
How can hearing aids improve quality of life?
KC: If you are a candidate for using hearing aids, which means that you have tested outside the normal hearing range but do not need to see a physician, it is important to consider the pros and cons of not doing something to correct your hearing loss.
Aside from the benefits of being able to hear conversations more clearly and easily, which is a huge boost to quality of life, hearing loss shares comorbidities with several other health issues including dementia, depression & isolation, balance, heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The biggest factor that has had a lot of research supporting it is cognitive decline and dementia. People with untreated hearing loss are up to five times more likely to develop dementia. Even someone with an untreated mild hearing loss is twice as likely to develop dementia.
If you or a loved one is concerned about hearing impairment, Beltone provides a complimentary hearing test to evaluate hearing and ears. They can help determine if a hearing loss is present, as well as the type and severity, and if an ear specialist who is an MD should be consulted, or if the patient is eligible to use a hearing aid. That test will also include having Beltone providers look into the ear canal to see if earwax is part of the problem. Learn more at www.BeltoneArizona.com.