Digital hearing aids translate sounds, including their loudness and pitch, into numerical codes before amplifying them, so they can be programmed to amplify some frequencies more than others. Most people have more hearing loss at certain frequency ranges (for example, at high frequencies associated with consonants), and this feature allows the hearing aid specialist to amplify the frequency ranges the user is having the most difficulty hearing.
Digital hearing aids can also be programmed to focus on sounds coming from in front of the user. This is done with the assistance of a directional microphone, which picks up sounds coming from the front better than sounds coming from other directions. This can be useful for amplifying the sounds of face-to-face conversations, particularly when there is a lot of background noise. It is common for a hearing aid to have a regular microphone as well as a directional one and the option to switch between the two at will. According to some hearing aid specialists, new and better directional microphones are one of the greatest improvements in hearing aids in the last decade.
One hearing aid, or two?
In addition to considering various styles and types of hearing aid, the question of whether to use one or two hearing aids also should be addressed. For some people, such as those who have hearing loss (or hearing ability) in only one ear, getting fitted for a single hearing aid makes the most sense. The majority of people who have hearing loss, however, are affected in both ears. In this case, if a person can afford the expense, there are several benefits to wearing two hearing aids. For one thing, using two hearing aids provides stimulation to both ears, helping preserve the hearing that remains. Wearing two hearing aids also enables a person to locate the source of sounds more accurately and understand conversations more easily. This setup additionally has the advantage of allowing the user to keep the volume of the hearing aids at a lower level, decreasing the chance of feedback and minimizing the amount of noise reaching each ear. Together with your audiologist, you can decide whether one or two hearing aids would be appropriate for you.
Tips for buying a hearing aid
The first step when considering the purchase of a hearing aid should be speaking with your doctor about your hearing loss. He may want to check your hearing and look into the underlying cause of your hearing loss. He can refer you to an audiologist (a person who specializes in hearing) to get more extensive tests. The audiologist will test your hearing threshold (the minimum level at which you can hear a sound) at different frequencies.
If you have hearing loss, you can work with your audiologist to select a hearing aid that best suits your needs and your lifestyle. Here are some questions to ask about a hearing aid, as suggested by the NIH:
- What does it cost? Hearing aids are generally not covered by health insurance and range in price from hundreds of dollars to several thousand dollars. Be aware that a higher price does not necessarily mean that a hearing aid is better suited to your needs.
- Is there a trial period? Most manufacturers offer a 30-day or 60-day trial period, during which you can return the hearing aid for a full or partial refund.
- How long does the warranty last? Are maintenance and repairs covered for the future?
- Is the audiologist available to make repairs and adjustments? (Follow-up visits are extremely important in terms of making a hearing aid work optimally for you.)
- What instruction does the audiologist provide? (It is helpful to have instructions on inserting the hearing aid, removing it, cleaning it, changing the battery, and, if you have two hearing aids, distinguishing the left one from the right one.)
Breaking in your hearing aid
The breaking-in period, when you are first trying out and making adjustments to a hearing aid, can make a huge difference as to whether or not you will want to purchase the hearing aid and actually use it regularly. According to audiologists, it can take a considerable investment in time and effort to properly break in a hearing aid and make it work for you. They say, for example, that the brain may take a while to adapt to receiving new acoustic impulses and to learn to process them correctly. In some cases, people have gotten so used to their hearing loss that they have learned to tune out conversations — and it may require some effort to learn to pay attention again.