An estimated 48 million people in the United States have some degree of hearing loss, and studies show that hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as in those without it. Scientists don’t know exactly how diabetes contributes to hearing loss, but they suspect that, just as prolonged high blood glucose damages blood vessels in the eyes, kidneys and other body parts, it may damage the vessels in and leading to the inner ear as well. Diabetes may also affect the auditory nerves in the same way that it impacts nerves in the hands, feet and elsewhere throughout the body.
You may not even be aware that you have hearing loss, especially if it has occurred gradually. However, you might think that other people are mumbling, or you might have trouble following conversations, especially in crowded rooms. Other people may start to complain that you’re not listening, that you always ask them to repeat themselves, or that you turn the volume on the TV up too loud. If any of this sounds familiar, you should speak with your primary care physician or ear, nose and throat doctor (also known as an ENT, or otolaryngologist).
Some cases of hearing loss are very straightforward to treat: Sometimes, removal of ear wax or other blockages may immediately improve hearing. If an acute ear infection causes the hearing loss, antibiotics may greatly improve the situation. Surgery may be used to treat hearing loss from a head trauma, damage from chronic ear infections, or chronic fluid buildup in the inner ear.
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In some cases, getting the proper hearing aids can greatly improve a person’s day-to-day life. There are many different types of hearing aids on the market, but they all share three basic components — a microphone that picks up sound, an amplifier that makes it louder, and a receiver that transmits these amplified sounds into the ear.
The two main types of hearing aids are analog hearing aids and digital hearing aids. Analog hearing aids, which are generally less expensive and have simple volume controls, electronically amplify sounds. This technology is becoming less common. Digital hearing aids are more sophisticated, converting sound waves into digital signals, providing a duplicated and amplified version of the original sound. Digital hearing aids can be adjusted for different patterns of hearing loss, as well as various settings and situations.
Hearing aids also come in different styles: In-the-canal (ITC) and completely-in-the-canal (CIC) hearing aids fit partly or fully into a person’s ear and are harder to see. In-the-ear (ITE) hearing aids fit completely inside the ear. Behind-the-ear (BTE) or “mini” behind-the-ear (mini BTE) hearing aids sit primarily behind the ear, with a plastic ear mold fitting inside the outer ear and directing the sound into the ear canal. Sometimes, the hearing aid is connected to a narrow tube leading into the ear canal. Some hearing aids include directional microphones, which help people hear sounds coming from a specific direction while tuning out background noise. (This option is very handy for speaking across the table from someone at a noisy restaurant, for example.) Wireless connectivity available on some models allows users to sync up their hearing aids with Bluetooth-compatible devices, such as cellphones, music players and televisions.
If you’re considering getting a hearing aid, the first step is to visit an audiologist in your area. (Proximity is important, as you may need to return to your audiologist frequently for adjustments.) The audiologist can help you choose a device based on your degree of hearing loss, how unnoticeable you want it to be, your finances and other considerations. Also, ask whether you’ll have a trial period, which would give you a chance to try it out and see whether it’s working for you. Ideally, the hearing aids should come with a warranty that covers parts and any labor. Find out how many return visits to the audiologist, if any, are covered by the price of the hearing aids. If they’re not covered, get an idea of how much the office visits will cost.
What if you have hearing loss in both ears? If cost is a major concern, you may opt to get only one hearing aid, but most audiologists recommend getting a set of two in these cases.
I ’ve written about hearing aids in the past, talking about how my latest ones were better than the previous ones. Here are some not-so-high-tech changes that have made my latest pair so much easier to use:
• Most models now have built-in batteries that can be charged overnight. I simply place my hearing aids in a charging base, where they recharge while I sleep. No worrying about batteries. Plus, the charging station, which I keep on my dresser, is a very convenient place for them to “live,” and so I’m much less likely to lose them.
• Many models also now use Bluetooth technology, which has a number of benefits. They can sync up with smartphones, so I can manage their settings such as volume with a few taps. I can hear phone conversations directly through my hearing aids. I can play music from my iPhone directly into my hearing aids. If I wanted, I could even attach a Bluetooth unit to my TV to feed the sound directly into the hearing aids.
• If I do lose my hearing aids, I can use my hearing aid app to find them. It displays a map showing where I am and where they are — even if they’re miles away.
• I don’t have to clean out my hearing aids anymore. Instead of being carried through a hollow plastic tube, the sound is carried through a wire within a plastic tube. If the hearing aid becomes blocked, I can replace the earbud, the piece that goes into my ear canal and, if necessary, the filter that keeps gunk from the earbud from blocking the sound. Both the earbud and the filter are cheap pieces that I replace once a month and twice a month, respectively.
A hearing aid won’t restore your hearing to normal — it can only amplify sounds. There’s also a learning curve that goes with a new hearing aid. It actually takes time to get used to the amplified sounds. That includes other people’s speech, which can sound much different when certain frequencies are amplified. Consonants, for example, can sound very different through a hearing aid.
If you suspect that you have hearing loss, you owe it to yourself to look into hearing aids. Even if you don’t think you’re missing much, you might be surprised by how much they can improve your hearing — and your life.
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