Why is it important to test your hearing?
Like eyesight, hearing gradually deteriorates, especially as we age. Hearing loss over time, to a certain extent, is a part of the natural aging process. If it’s only natural for both senses to dull, then why are people more willing to test their eyesight and get prescriptions for eyeglasses more than they are to test their hearing? This could be because eyesight is our primary sense for viewing and perceiving the world around us.
Much of the reluctance of using hearing aids stems from fear of being perceived as impaired or ill since they used to be difficult to conceal. The technological advances in hearing aids since the 1980s have resulted in nearly invisible, affordable hearing aids, and even completely invisible cochlear implants. Still, many people avoid even getting a hearing test.
Without good vision, we feel more lost than we are without perfect hearing. However, hearing deserves more credit than we give it. Through hearing, we perceive emotion and subtleties in language and intonation. Hearing provides the intimacy of an experience that vision alone cannot provide.
Try watching a movie or TV drama in closed captions only and then with sound. Doesn’t the movie soundtrack add to the experience? Doesn’t the suspenseful creak of floorboards provide a much more fulfilling experience than simply reading [sound of floorboards creaking]?
Understandably, mistaking the word “trash” for “cash,” or having to read closed captions may not seem like dire enough situations to warrant shelling out thousands of dollars for hearing aids. However, simply attributing hearing loss to the natural aging process and subsequently avoiding getting tested is more dangerous than you think it is.
The ear plays the main role in controlling your balance, according to Dr. Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University, who has found that “even mild hearing loss can triple the risk of falling.” Hearing loss has also been linked to depression caused by social isolation, and it has recently been linked to dementia due to the reduction of brain activity in the auditory cortex.
Often, people don’t even notice that their hearing has deteriorated to the point where they need hearing aids, since it’s such a gradual process, usually occurring over the course of years.
In fact, although the average person reports having hearing issues for only a few months, they have usually really had the problem for seven to ten years.
Denial of hearing impairment, the steep cost of hearing aids, and the social stigma of wearing hearing aids are the most common reasons why people simply don’t get their hearing tested.
However, with technological advancements, the benefits of getting tested for hearing aids, including less risk for depression and dementia, definitely outweigh the costs. There are now affordable Audicus hearing aids—significantly less than the thousands of dollars people traditionally pay for hearing aids. Further, hearing aids available today are typically so small they are often unnoticeable.
When should you get a hearing test?
Research shows that untreated hearing loss is a widespread problem that can actually affect brain development. A study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has found that untreated hearing loss can lead to faster rates of atrophy, or degeneration, in certain parts of the brain.
This atrophy in the brain has been associated with increased incidences of dementia in patients who were hearing-impaired but did not use hearing aids.
Similar research was done at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Scientists demonstrated that when hearing-impaired patients were given complex sentences to listen to, they actually demonstrated less brain activity in their MRI scans.
People that struggled with hearing also had less gray matter in the auditory cortex, the part of the brain associated with processing sound.
So, when should you get a hearing test? If you have insurance, hearing tests are usually covered once a year.
Getting your hearing tested annually will help you stay updated on your hearing health. You should get a hearing test every three years, at the minimum, and visit the doctor as soon as you experience any hearing loss symptoms. Getting an early start on hearing tests is not only beneficial for mental health but can also protect hearing later on in life.
Where do you get a hearing test?
People may avoid getting hearing aid prescriptions because they don’t know where to get tested.
Medical professionals such as ear, nose, and throat doctors, or otolaryngologists, can diagnose and treat hearing-related illnesses. Wholesale stores also offer hearing tests at their hearing aid centers, as do colleges or universities with audiology programs. Communication Disorders Technology Inc., a company based in Bloomington, Illinois, now offers free initial screening tests over the phone.
It’s important to note that it can take a person seven years to hearing aid after they’ve been tested.
Who to call for hearing tests:
The ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor’s office usually have an audiologist on staff. Call ahead to make an appointment. The test is typically covered by insurance and the doctor is available if a medical examination is required.
Enter a zip code into ZocDoc to find a local audiology clinic. Call to make an appointment and make sure to request a copy of the hearing test during the visit.
What happens during a hearing test?
There are various tests doctors conduct to assess hearing loss. Usually, the doctor will physically examine the eardrum and ear canal to check for any infections or obstructions (such as earwax).
The doctor may also administer an audiometry test. It’s the most common way to assess someone’s ability to hear at any given frequency. It typically consists of putting a headset on the patient and playing tones at different frequencies and volumes.
What is an audiogram, and how do you read it?
Do you know how to read an audiogram?
The result of the audiometry test is called an audiogram. Be sure to request a copy of your audiogram. It will act as prescription for you and allow you to survey your options and make the most educated hearing aid choices for you. You have a legal right to this document as it is your medical information.
The audiogram is a graph with frequency (in Hz) and volume (in dB) on either axis. The curve essentially tells you how soft a sound has to be for you to be able to hear it—and hence how much correction (i.e. amplification) you need for any given frequency. It will look something like this:
Key: Blue = Left Ear, Red = Right Ear, X = Left Ear, O = Right Ear
The normal hearing threshold is considered to be at 20 decibels. Patients falling below that threshold are considered to have some form of hearing loss. Currently, the categorization of loss is as follows:
- Normal: <20 decibels
- Mild: 20-39 decibels
- Moderate: 40-69 decibels
- Severe: 70-90 decibels
- Profound: >90 decibels
What are the lines on the audiogram?
Asymmetrical hearing loss is when each ear has a different level or type of hearing loss. Each ear is represented by a different line on the graph. If your graphs or lines look different from one another, you have asymmetrical hearing loss.
This is more unusual and signifies that the causes of the loss in each ear are different and therefore must be treated differently. When asymmetrical hearing loss exists, it is best to have your ears checked out by an ENT doctor to ensure that you are a candidate for hearing aids and that no surgery or treatment is needed. The sample graph below reflects asymmetrical hearing loss as each ear has different levels of hearing loss.
Symmetrical hearing loss is most natural with age-related hearing loss. It implies that hearing loss is the same in both ears. If both lines or graphs look the same, you have symmetrical hearing loss. The graph below shows an audiogram reflecting symmetrical hearing loss.
Do you have high or low-frequency hearing loss?
Frequency is the unit by which how high or low a sound is measured. Frequency is measured horizontally on the top of your hearing test. As the frequencies go from left to right, they range from lower to higher.
If you read the audiogram from left to right, the final X is all the way at 8,000 hertz—that means this person would have high-frequency loss. They can only hear above 80 decibels at 8,000 hertz.
High-frequency loss makes it difficult to hear high-pitched sounds, such as children and people with high-pitched voices. If the Xs and Os on your hearing test remain predominantly on the left side, you have low-frequency loss, making lower-pitched sounds more difficult to hear and understand.
What level of hearing loss do you have?
Decibels are the unit by which sound is measured. On your audiogram, the decibel loss is measured vertically on the left side. As the number gets bigger, so does your hearing loss.
If you read the above audiogram from left to right, the final O (right ear) hits about 68 decibels or so. This means that anything below 68 decibels (whispered conversations, leaves rustling, birds chirping) will not be heard. The last X (left ear) has slightly more severe hearing loss, hitting at 75 decibels. Again, this means that any sound below 75 decibels will not be heard.
What is a Word Recognition Score?
The last part of your audiogram is the Word Recognition Score or WRS. This is located in a little box to the side or below your audiogram graph. It looks something like this:
The Word Recognition Score is a measurement of your speech comprehension abilities. Your audiologist will test your brain’s ability to understand language by having you repeat sentences and words.
It is important to understand that the parts of your brain that process speech and hearing are separate. This means that fitting you with hearing aids won’t necessarily improve your speech if it falls below a certain level. Every audiologist has a threshold below which they will not recommend someone to be a hearing aid candidate—for many, it is 50 percent.
The longer you go without hearing aids, the more your language muscle atrophies, lowering your score evermore. After a certain point, this muscle ceases to work on a functioning level, and the damage cannot be restored. This is all the more reason to get fitted with your Audicus hearing aid as quickly as possible.