My wife has been asking me to get my hearing checked for the past 10 years. I understand her frustration; I fail to respond to her voice a few times each day — and no, I’m not talking about the selective hearing of a long-married husband. I have tinnitus, a perpetual ringing in the ears that, in my case, sounds like cicadas and crickets during an August twilight. It's not soothing, but irritating and constant, diminishing my hearing and distracting my thinking. In recent years, the problem grew worse; it became almost impossible to grasp conversations in a crowded room or noisy situation, no matter how close I stood to the speaker.
Still, I avoided the trip to the hearing specialist. In part, I wasn’t psychologically ready to consider hearing aids while in my 50s. And to be honest, I’m just one of those guys who too often ignore noncritical health matters.
But a few months ago, I decided to take action. And — ta-da! — today, I have hearing aids. I’m here to report that the experience has been terrific. It hasn't been perfect: I still have symptoms of tinnitus (which affects roughly 1 in 7 Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association); even with the hearing aids, the perpetual high-pitched static still carries on in the background. The hearing aids have a setting for tinnitus in which a counterbalancing sound — usually waves on a rocky beach — quietly plays. I’ll keep experimenting, but so far, this setting provides more distraction than remedy. Apparently, though, I’m in the minority; one survey showed that roughly 60 percent of tinnitus patients got some relief after they started to wear hearing aids. Another option for easy testing: Take the National Hearing Test by telephone. It’s free to AARP members, $8 for nonmembers.
In many other ways, though, the devices have improved my hearing — and my world.
If you have hearing issues and are skeptical about getting hearing aids, there are several reasons you should consider giving them a try:
1. Getting tested is easy (and maybe even free).
What finally got me in the door? The word “free.” It turns out the hearing-aid retail chain in the strip mall near my home gives free, no-commitment hearing tests. So in a moment of resolve, I set up a Saturday morning visit. I sat in an enclosed booth, put on headphones, and went through a sequence of listening tests that lasted about 15 minutes. The primary one: Push a button when you hear a beeping in one ear. Other tests included repeating back spoken words and comprehending sentences spoken within varying levels of background noise. From these tests, the audiologist used a computer program to create a detailed map of my hearing. The most important data includes how many decibels below normal your hearing is at different pitches. If you demonstrate a significant drop-off in hearing at a range of pitches, you are a candidate for hearing aids.
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2. Choosing and fitting hearing aids doesn't need to be complicated.
It's kind of like choosing a smartphone. Both devices are packed with technology and options, but what really matters is that they work well, are easy to use, are durable, and — yes — look the way you want them to look. You can dive deeply into the science and the options in your own research, or you can just let your audiologist make a recommendation. All you need to do is make payment arrangements (my health insurance covered about half the cost, a generous amount; traditional Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids), and the hearing aids will be ready fast — in some cases, immediately, if the audiologist keeps the model you need in stock.
To get them ready for use, the audiologist syncs the hearing aids with your personal computerized hearing report. Go through a few tests and adjustments (a key one makes sure your own voice doesn’t sound loud or mechanical) and you’re done. In my case, it took no more than 15 minutes of back-and-forth with the audiologist to complete the setup. Two weeks later, I had a 30-minute return visit to do further fine-tuning.
3. Hearing aids can help you enjoy music again.
I am an avid music fan and lifelong guitarist. I knew my declining hearing was affecting my perception of music, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I got hearing aids. My troubles are all in the high end — I have difficulty hearing tones above 2,000 hertz (those are the notes on the right fifth of a piano keyboard or higher). Now, I hear the ringing of the cymbals, the full sound of a sax or trumpet, and the nuance of a great female vocal. It's heaven. And yes, hearing in these higher regions does help me hear my wife better.
4. No one sees them.
The greatest relief was realizing how small hearing aids have become. A one-inch-long curved plastic unit tucks above each ear, and a thin clear wire with a soft-plastic bud at the end feeds into my ear canal; if I tuck the wire close to my ear, it’s nearly invisible. In the few months I've worn the hearing aids, no one yet has asked me about the wires, and I have not noticed anyone turning their gaze to my ears.
5. They’re easy to wear and maintain.
Batteries need replacing every four to seven days, depending on your usage habits. They pop in and out more easily than changing batteries in a flashlight. Otherwise, in the morning, you tuck the units above your ears, push in the buds, adjust the wire, and away you go. In the first few days, they tickled; now I’m used to them. The ritual of wearing them is about as challenging as wearing glasses.
That leads me to my one big complaint: The ends of my glasses sit on top of the hearing aids now. That means two things: 1) My glasses fall off much easier, and 2) the rubbing of my glasses on the hearing aids can sometimes make a crackling sound. Clearly, I’m not alone with this issue. Some companies now offer a hearing aid that is embedded in the frame of your glasses; another entrepreneurial enterprise offers hearing aid covers that have clips to hold the end of your glasses. I’ll likely solve the problem by getting a new pair of glasses with thinner frames that extend further behind my ears.
6. The technology is impressive.
I love the Bluetooth connection to my smartphone. Through an app, I can see the remaining battery life, make adjustments to amplification and tone, and even use presets like “café,” which will adjust the hearing aids so they work harder to focus on the person in front of me and less on ambient noise. My hearing aids can also take the place of earbuds, with phone calls or music wirelessly streaming directly through the devices. With the right setup, I could even stream the audio from my television through them.
Bottom line: My wife still speaks too quietly sometimes. My son still mutters incomprehensibly at dinner when I ask him what he accomplished that day. And a loud bar is still a loud bar. But overall? Hearing aids have improved my daily function, and the drawbacks have been few. In my own mind, I still struggle with the inevitable thoughts — I’m getting old — that hearing aids trigger. But I wear them every day, morning to night. I never thought I’d hear myself say those words.
Neil Wertheimer is deputy editor at AARP.