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8 Tips to Help You Adjust to Hearing Aids

How to train your brain to get used to your new hearing aids

Start out slowly
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Hearing is one of five senses that put us in touch with our surroundings. Along with the other traditional senses — sight, smell, taste and touch — hearing allows us to navigate our way through the world. If the ability to hear slips away, the world may become a more confusing and lonely place. Hearing aids provide an effective solution, and now that they’re available over the counter, no prescription necessary, they’re even more affordable and more available.

But whether prescription or over-the-counter, hearing aids take some getting used to. Parts of the ear and brain that normally detect sounds become inactive with hearing loss, write Frank Lin, M.D., professor of otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and audiologist Nicholas Reed, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in AARP’s Hearing Loss for Dummies. When you first get hearing aids, those parts of the ear and brain that have been dormant can become overstimulated and that can seem jarring, the authors say. Your brain may need two to four weeks to get used to the new way of perceiving sounds. Here are some tips for getting accustomed to your new hearing aids. 

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1. Get used to your new hearing aids

Start out slowly. When you first put on your new hearing aids, your own voice will sound strange to you. Sound doesn’t travel through the air and into your ears anymore. Rather, a microphone captures the sound, an amplifier makes it louder, and a receiver delivers it to your ear. It usually takes a while to get used to the different sound. “Many people feel discouraged when they start wearing hearing aids because every noise is too loud,” says Sarah Hesseltine, an audiologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. “Even soft sounds like slippers on a carpet feel new,” she says. Background noises and sounds become really noticeable, and “the brain has to relearn which ones to pay attention to and which to ignore.”

Hearing Loss for Dummies

Authors Frank Lin, M.D., and audiologist Nicholas Reed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lay out the steps to hearing health, including activities to help you get new hearing aids and tips for cleaning and maintaining the devices.

2. Get accustomed to your own voice

You might find it helps to take a favorite book or magazine to a quiet room, choose a comfortable chair and read aloud to yourself for a few minutes each day. Wear your new hearing aids all day every day for a week or two, Hesseltine advises, so you can get used to sounds you never paid attention to in the past. Keep in mind that getting used to new hearing aids, either prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), can be tiring. If wearing them from morning to night is too much, set them aside periodically and enjoy some quiet time.

3. Fix the whistling

Something as matter-of-fact as putting on a scarf or hugging someone can cause your hearing aids to whistle, a phenomenon called hearing aid feedback, according to the Hearing Industries Association (HIA). Sound that is supposed to go into your ear canal leaves your ear and is picked up by the aid’s microphone, resulting in an annoying whistle. According to the HIA, many hearing aids now include a feature that helps quell the whistle, but its effectiveness can differ, depending on the situation.

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4. Don’t put up with discomfort

Even weight gain or weight loss can affect the fit, so make sure the aid fits in your ear correctly. Check with your doctor or audiologist to see if too much earwax is blocking the ear canal; with age, ear wax becomes harder and builds up, explains Jennifer Clays, an audiologist with Thames Hearing Services in East Lyme, Connecticut. Two common signs of earwax buildup are an earache and an itching in the ear. Test the tubing that connects to the mold to see if it’s hardened. If it has, it may not fit well anymore. 

Finally, check that the microphone hasn’t become loose or displaced. Even if you have OTC hearing aids that you got without a prescription, an audiologist could help with any discomfort or problems. “A lot of people think it’s either OTC or I go to an audiologist and get prescription hearing aids. Nothing is further from the truth,” said Lin at an AARP Hearing Center virtual event. You will likely have to pay for that visit, but it could be worth it to make sure your hearing aids work for you.

5. Learn to control the level of noise you hear

Hearing aids cannot completely block unwanted noises, such as screeching brakes, clanking cutlery, rustling paper and cranky babies. Even people without hearing loss dislike this kind of unwelcome noise. Newer hearing aids have sensors that reduce the level of sudden loud sounds. Some aids may also control the level of constant noise associated with ballgames or music festivals. And some hearing aids can identify the presence of wind and actively reduce its loudness. If you’re troubled by these kinds of background noises, check with your audiologist or hearing aid specialist to learn if the aids you bought or are planning to buy have these features.

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6. Connect what you hear to what you see

Listening to and reading words at the same time retrains your brain to connect sounds and language. Here are three simple ways to go about it: When you watch television, turn on closed captioning and read the subtitles while you watch and listen to the program. Listen to an audiobook while you read the printed book. Have someone else read a newspaper or magazine article to you while you follow along with your printed copy.

7. Keep your device clean and dry

Wipe the pieces of your hearing aid with the cleaning kit, which often includes a small brush with soft bristles. The best time to clean your aids is in the morning after any wax has dried, write Lin and Reed in Hearing Loss for Dummies. Consider investing in a drying jar or electronic dryer to dry your hearing aids overnight because “moisture is the enemy of any electronic device,” according to Hearing Loss for Dummies. Never use a soaking-wet cloth, household cleaning products or harsh chemical cleaners.

8. Protect your ears

Your hearing aids allow you to hear soft sounds as well as louder sounds, which should not be uncomfortable. Yet some people who wear hearing aids often find loud sounds painful. If that’s the case, take your hearing aids back to your audiologist or to the store that sold them to you. The Hearing Loss Association of America recommends buying hearing aids with a comprehensive return policy on the box. The volume can be adjusted so that loud sounds will be bearable, but you’ll still be able to hear soft sounds.

Using Hearing Aids if You Have Tinnitus

That ringing in your ear is a sound that no one but you can hear. It’s called tinnitus and it affects more than 50 million people in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Tinnitus is especially common among older adults, and it can take many forms; it may also appear as clicking, buzzing or hissing. Many people believe that hearing aids make tinnitus worse, notes Hesseltine, but that’s not true. Hearing aids amplify only external sounds. Tinnitus tends to get worse when you think about it, so if you can substitute an audiobook or a favorite piece of music to focus on rather than listening to the noise in your head, it will be much less noticeable. “Once hearing aids do their job and treat your hearing loss,” Hesseltine says, “tinnitus should no longer feel like the loudest sound in the room.”