Hearing aids: Reopening the world of sound
October 20, 1999
Web posted at: 12:24 PM EDT (1624 GMT)
By Sharon Lim
Marlene Foster had never known that her refrigerator hummed. She had never experienced the full richness of orchestral music. She often had been unable to keep up with the conversations around her. But all of that changed when the 53-year-old Los Angeles grant writer started using a hearing aid.
Like Foster, 28 million Americans have hearing impairments, according to the Better Hearing Institute in Washington, D.C., and many more live as Foster did without knowing they can't hear properly. Fortunately, hearing aids can restore much of the loss. As part of National Hearing Aid Awareness Week (October. 17-23), hearing experts are urging people to have their hearing checked.
Sensorineural damage, or nerve deafness, is the most common form of hearing loss. Most people experience it as a difficulty in hearing high-pitched sounds. It can be caused by several factors, including age, infection and prolonged exposure to loud noises.
Since this type of hearing loss tends to be gradual, it can easily go unnoticed. Nonetheless, it can cause stress and feelings of isolation and depression along the way, says Henry J. Ilecki, Ph.D., of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) in Rockville, Maryland.
The benefits of hearing aids
Hearing aids can help approximately 95 percent of those who have a hearing impairment, according to the Better Hearing Institute. Although hearing aids cannot cure hearing loss, they function like glasses do for people with nearsightedness, improving quality of life for the users.
And, says Ilecki, advances in technology have made hearing aids more powerful while keeping them small enough to be barely visible, reducing the stigma that is sometimes associated with wearing them.
Several types of hearing aids are available depending on the user's needs. Completely-in-the-canal hearing aids are the smallest and least visible. They can be worn by those with mild to moderate hearing loss. In-the-canal and behind-the-ear hearing aids, which are larger and more powerful, help people who have more profound hearing loss. Hearing aids also vary widely in cost -- from $500 to $3,000. Before shopping for a hearing aid, keep in mind that not all insurance plans cover the expense.
Understanding hearing loss
Sound is measured in units called "decibels." The human ear is equipped to be safely exposed to about 90 decibels of continuous sound (the equivalent of a motorcycle engine running 25 feet away) for up to eight hours. As the intensity increases by 5 decibels, however, the time for which someone can safely listen to it decreases by half, says Laurie Hanin, director of audiology at the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York City.
Preventive care is therefore important for maintaining good hearing, Hanin says. Personal protection devices, such as earplugs, should be worn on the job or even at home when the noise level is unsafe, such as when using power tools. Ear protection also should be used during recreational activities, including rock concerts or snowmobiling. And look out for places where you might unexpectedly encounter loud noises -- the music played at some gyms, for instance, can reach intensity levels of 130 to 140 decibels.
"Throughout my life, I had relied on reading lips to participate in conversations," Foster says. "But in meetings at my job, people wouldn't necessarily face me when they spoke. Missing and mishearing information was embarrassing and became a huge source of stress that affected my work performance." The problems at work finally led Foster to have her hearing tested two years ago.
ASHA offers a home-test for people who think they may have hearing loss. The test consists of a series of questions, which can help determine whether you should seek professional help from a hearing care provider.
Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.
RELATEDS AT :
Hearing loss is a big problem in the workforce
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
League for the Hard of Hearing
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
LATEST HEALTH STORIES:
China SARS numbers pass 5,000
Report: Form of HIV in humans by 1940
Fewer infections for back-sleeping babies
Pneumonia vaccine may help heart, too