Hearing aids are a business and a technology product. But the sale of hearing aids has been cloaked in an aura of mystery and pseudo-medical veneer. Although audiology is a profession, and practitioners are licensed and awarded the title of “Doctor”, if there is something wrong with your ears, you see a physician, not an audiologist. For example, audiologists are obliged to refer you to a medical doctor if your ear canal is blocked by wax, or if there are other indications of pathology that affect your ability to hear.
The hearing aid is a prosthetic device that compensates for hearing loss. It can be much more than a simple amplifier of sound. The latest ones process the sound much as a sound engineer “mixes” the sound of a vocalist or an orchestra.
Our hearing is a sense. To hear well is to correctly perceive the sounds we are interested in within a torrent of irrelevant sounds. Our ears must convert sound waves into nerve impulses, and our brain must then interpret the stream of impulses. Lots can go wrong along the way.
Interfering noises, and poor quality of sound at the source can be compensated for with external devices. Most of the benefits of hearing aids come from processing the sound to optimize it for the ear.
But neurological conditions, cognitive issues, and individual perceptual talents all contribute to the ability or inability to hear well. Most of these are not helped by devices. Training those we communicate with to speak more slowly, enunciate carefully, face us when speaking, and give us get the context for a remark are all beneficial in compensating for the internal processing of spoken communication.
As a sound engineer and technician, I’m often asked about hearing aids and other devices that help people hear better. The first step is to gain an understanding of your individual hearing problem. See a doctor first, then shop audiologists. The quality of testing, and the value vs. price of the products varies widely. An advanced technology hearing aid from Costco can be half the price of a less capable device sold by an independent audiologist. Audiologists sell certain brands and not others, so you can expect them to promote what the have. This may or may not be in your best interest.
Past abuses in the hearing aid field have prompted many states to mandate a 90-day full money back satisfaction guarantee. A thorough hearing exam will test the sensitivity of your ears to sounds of different loudness levels at different pitches. This is critical to adjusting a hearing aid to compensate so that you hear more like someone with no hearing loss. They may also test your ability to discern sound in a mix of background noise. Some tests check your ability to discern the difference between similar words. A thorough test will allow the audiologist to predict how helpful a hearing device may be.
Once these tests were done, my audiologist at Costco programmed a pair of demo hearing aids for me and let me walk around the store and chat with people to see if they were beneficial. (They were and he made the sale that day.) I’ve been an enthusiastic customer ever since.
If you are thinking about hearing aids, here is a table of features and benefits to help you decode the technical jargon.