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What You Need to Know About Hearing Aids

Hearing loss is common, especially as people get older. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one-third of adults older than age 60 have hearing loss, and one-half of adults over age 85 are affected.

Hearing loss often starts with an inability to hear high-frequency sounds. A person with diminished hearing often will complain that he or she can hear others just fine but can't make out what they're saying.

If you suspect you have a hearing problem, make an appointment with an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in ear, nose, and throat problems; or an otologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases and conditions of the ears, including hearing loss.

The doctor will examine your ears and ask questions about your hearing. After ruling out some sort of obvious obstruction or major ear infection, most doctors will use a tuning fork to make a preliminary assessment, followed by more advanced tests that will determine the extent and frequency range of your loss.

If your doctor recommends a hearing aid, the following suggestions can help you determine which kind will suit you best.

Buying a hearing aid

The three basic styles of hearing aids differ by size, placement on or inside the ear, and amplification standards. They each work differently, depending on the electronics used.

With hearing loss, you lose hearing in various frequencies, or ranges of sound. A digital hearing aid can be programmed to boost specific frequencies. This dramatically improves your ability to understand of speech over an analog hearing aid, which amplifies all frequencies. Amplifying all frequencies might improve hearing, but not improve the clarity of speech. A programmable analog hearing aid tries to overcome this deficiency. By adjusting the amplifier, you can adjust certain ranges of pitch just as you would on your home stereo. A programmable analog hearing aid is not as adjustable as a digital hearing aid. Digital hearing aids can be programmed to boost a single, specific frequency.

With today's technology, behind-the-ear aids are small, powerful, and easy to handle for cleaning, changing the battery, and adjusting the volume. They are user-friendly even though they are more noticeable.

The in-the-ear models come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are plainly visible and fill the entire, bowl-shaped part of the outer ear. Others can hardly be seen and fit almost completely in the ear canal.

You have two basic choices in circuitry—digital and analog. The circuitry is the machinery within the hearing aid that processes sound. The size and shape of the hearing aid are independent of the circuitry because manufacturers can fit any kind of circuitry into almost any size hearing aid.

The price of a hearing aid varies, depending on the circuitry, but as a rule, the smaller the hearing aid, the more expensive it is. Digital is more expensive than analog. Programmable analog hearing aids are midway between basic analog hearing aids and digital models in terms of price.

In most states, two kinds of specialists are licensed to fit you for a hearing aid: audiologists and hearing-aid dispensers, sometimes called hearing-instrument specialists. Audiologists must have at least a master's degree to be licensed to practice in various states of the U.S. A doctoral degree is required for licensure in some states, and is required in order to be board certified by the American Board of Audiology. Audiologists are licensed to evaluate hearing and fit people with hearing aids. Many are affiliated with hospitals and schools. Dispensers usually are licensed only to sell and fit hearing aids.