If your existing pair of hearing aids isn’t getting the job done, how do you know whether to have them repaired or replaced? “Hearing aids can become ineffective due to two primary reasons,” says Sumit Dhar, professor of hearing science at Northwestern University. “First, they may be malfunctioning and therefore not providing adequate or appropriate amplification anymore. Second, your hearing loss could have changed with time. The hearing aids are still functioning well, but they’re not appropriate for your hearing loss anymore.”
Making sure your hearing aids are still programmed to compensate for your specific hearing loss is key, he adds. “There is growing evidence suggesting that hearing aids that are not adjusted appropriately for an individual’s hearing loss lead to distinctly different neural signatures of brain activation compared to properly adjusted hearing aids,” meaning your brain may be working harder than necessary to process sound.
In other words: There’s more at play than just quality of life. A hearing specialist can help steer you in the right direction. “An audiologist can explain the advantages and disadvantages of repair and readjustment versus replacement,” he says. Here are five reasons a change may be in order.
1. Your hearing has changed.
Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, can worsen even if you’ve been wearing hearing aids for a while. One sign you’ve outgrown your existing pair? You turn up the volume on your hearing aids — or the television — louder than you used to. An audiologist can determine whether you need to upgrade to a new pair or simply have your current set adjusted.
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“If there are changes to your hearing, you may not need new hearing aids,” says audiologist Bria Collins, associate director of audiology professional practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “Rather, you may need reprogramming to your new hearing thresholds to help improve your daily communication.”
2. Your health has changed.
Features that didn’t bother you when you bought your existing pair may now be an issue. Say, for instance, you’ve developed arthritis in your hands. Smaller hearing aids, such as completely-in-the-canal styles, may be tricky to maneuver if you have dexterity issues. Behind-the-ear and in-the-ear hearing aids might be easier to use; better yet, rechargeable hearing aids eliminate the hassle of changing batteries, suggests Collins.
“Hearing aids that you can wear for an extended period of time — meaning you return to your audiologist on a schedule to have the hearing aids replaced inside your ear canals — would be a good option for people with low vision and/or dexterity,” she says. “They would not have to handle the hearing aids at all.”
Another health issue that may warrant a change: Ménière’s Disease, an inner ear disorder that causes dizziness, ringing in the ears and a feeling of fullness in the ear, in addition to hearing loss. People with fluctuating hearing loss, like those with Ménière’s, need “to be able to manually adjust their hearing aids based on specific programs set by their audiologist to accommodate hearing changes than can occur from day to day,” says Collins.
3. Your hearing aids don’t function as well as they used to.
Thanks to ordinary wear and tear, plus damage from ear wax and moisture, the average lifespan of a set of hearing aids is about five years. Even if you’re willing to make do with hearing aids that don’t function as well as they once did, there’s this to consider: “Over time, parts should be replaced — for example, the microphones and receivers inside hearing aids are so small and susceptible to wax and moisture that it is important to have these parts professionally cleaned by an audiologist or replaced regularly,” says Collins. But “some hearing aid manufacturers will not offer repair services if a device is over five years old, due to availability or parts and circuitry.”
4. Technology has improved.
Hearing aids aren’t like smartphones — there isn’t a new model every year that renders what you have virtually obsolete. But the technology is always evolving, and experts say you might want a pair with newer features. “There are noticeable technology advances every three to five years, primarily in processing speed and advances to digital signal processing and noise reduction,” says Collins.
For example, the way hearing aids handle background noise and attempt to separate speech from noise is constantly improving. “Some hearing aids now have built-in sensors for falls and others function as tinnitus maskers,” says Dhar.
5. Your lifestyle has changed.
Has your Zoom-centric lifestyle continued, even as the pandemic has loosened its grip on the way you connect with others? If so, there are hearing aids that are Bluetooth compatible, allowing you to stream audio directly to your hearing aids from your computer or tablet. Or maybe you’ve started spending more time outdoors hiking, fishing or cycling since you purchased your last pair of hearing aids. If that’s the case, you might want to switch to a set that’s designed to suppress wind noise.
Or perhaps you’ve upgraded the rest of your technology and your hearing aids are behind the times. “A change in the use of other electronics may open the door to greater connectivity with hearing aids and warrant a change,” says Dhar. “For example, modern hearing aids can be connected directly with a telephone and allow music streaming.”
Kimberly Goad is a New York-based journalist who has covered health for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Reader’s Digest.