Many with Hearing Loss Go Untreated

Bonnie Miller Rubin

Posted May 21, 2012

Only 1 in 7 people ages 50 and older who should be using hearing aids actually wears a device, according to a recent study led by two Johns Hopkins researchers and published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine."

The study authors, Dr. Frank R. Lin and Dr. Wade Chien, analyzed why so few people opt not to improve their hearing. Lauren O'Flaherty, who has a doctorate in audiology from Indiana University and is an audiologist with Midwest Ear, Nose and Throat Consultants, which has four locations in DuPage County, shed some light on hearing impairment.

Q. If you suspect that you -- or someone you care about -- experiences hearing loss, what should you do?

A. The first thing is to schedule a diagnostic hearing test to see what's going on. Hearing is a lot more complicated than, say, getting glasses. It's an active, ongoing process -- like rehabilitation. It requires fine-tuning and a good deal of the success depends on the skills of the professional.

Q. What are the problems commonly associated with hearing loss?

A. The impact on overall health can be significant. We know you can have poorer cognitive function; that you can suffer from depression and isolation. When they can't communicate, people withdraw. And it's not just those with hearing loss who are affected ... friends and family are impacted too, because they have to shout or constantly repeat themselves. Really, it's a quality of life issue.

Q. Given that hearing is so important, why are so many people reluctant to get a hearing aid?

A. There's a stigma with hearing aids that isn't there with glasses. Also, some people think it's just a part of aging. Also, they may have heard that a lot of people hate them because they don't work. But a lot of people who say they threw their hearing aid in a drawer never went back to the audiologist.

Q. Does vanity have something to do with it, as well?

A. There's no question that when you say "hearing aid" patients think of these big, boxy devices from their grandparents' day. They are totally unaware of the big leap forward in technology. Today, many devices are virtually invisible and can do so much more. For example, it's possible to stream your phone through your hearing aid, so you can get the conversation in two ears, which can be huge for those with hearing loss.

Q. The findings by the Hopkins researchers suggest that expense is also an issue, since hearing aids are usually not covered by insurance. Does everyone need an expensive model?

A. Hearing aids can cost between $3,000 and $6,000 and no, not everyone needs the most expensive model. Sometimes, all the extra features are not necessary. ... You have to start by asking: What do you want your hearing aid to do? If you just want to be able to hear the TV, your needs are going to be much different than someone who works in a noisy or more complicated situation.

We are fitting more people with hearing aids in their 40s and 50s than ever before. The goal is to be able to do the things you've always done ... and no matter what your age, you should be able to hear someone talking to you.

brubin@tribune.com

©2012 the Chicago Tribune

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