How to Improve Your Hearing: 7 Tips From Audiologists
It’s pretty common to get your vision checked once a year, but what about your hearing? For unknown reasons, most people don’t think about their hearing as an integral part of their overall health.
And apparently, neither does the government. Medicare does not pay for hearing aids or devices, and it only covers a hearing test under specific guidelines.
However, your hearing is connected to stress, anxiety, concentration, isolation, and depression. In fact, your hearing is directly related to how you connect and form relationships with others.
Helen Keller once said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.” And that couldn’t be more true.
We’ve partnered with AOD Hearing Aids, one of the only organizations in Decatur, IL with Doctors of Audiology. Dr. Therese Kistenfeger, Au.D, and Dr. Hannah Gray, Au.D, have some pertinent advice for maintaining your hearing and ensuring you have your best hearing possible.
But first thing’s first – why is it so important to see a Doctor of Audiology?
Audiologist vs. Hearing Instrument Specialist
A Hearing Instrument Specialist (HIS), also called a dispenser, doesn’t require as much education as a Doctor of Audiology.
The criteria varies by state, with some states requiring only a high school diploma, and others like Illinois, which require an Associate’s Degree.
Both Dr. Kistenfeger and Dr. Gray explain that in order to become an Audiologist, you must complete a doctoral degree, which consists of about 8 years of coursework. In addition, over 1,820 hours of supervised clinical experience and continuing education is required.
“We do a lot of other things besides just hearing aids,” explains Dr. Kistenfeger. “We also do diagnostic testing for things like dizziness, we can do cochlear implants, and we are able to tell if the hearing or balance issue requires medical or surgical intervention, for example.”
A Hearing Instrument Specialist or dispenser only tests hearing for the sole purpose of dispensing hearing aids.
Now that we have that out of the way, here are 7 things you can do in order to unleash your best possible hearing.
1. Do an annual hearing test.
As with anything related to your overall health, preventative care is key. The best way to prevent hearing loss is to have an annual hearing test.
“I always tell my patients that hearing loss occurs in everyone,” says Dr. Kistenfeger, who shares her own experience with minor hearing loss.
When Dr. Kistenfeger was in graduate school about 10 years ago, her audiogram responses were at about -5 or -10, which is excellent. Today, they’re at +5 and +10, which is still good, but it indicates a slight decline.
“The hearing loss is not noticeable to me at this point, but it happens to everyone. What’s unique is the rate in which the hearing loss occurs and the severity of the loss of understanding,” she says.
By doing an annual hearing exam, you at least have a baseline to understand where your hearing is today. When you go back – even if it’s 3 or 4 years later – you can see if your hearing is declining, and the rate at which it is doing so.
Dr. Gray says you should go in for more frequent hearing testing if you have known associated comorbidities including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, depression, and dementia.
2. Know the signs of hearing loss.
When you have hearing loss – especially if it’s gradual – you start to think that the signs of hearing loss are normal. They feel like a part of everyday life, even though they’re not normal at all!
Dr. Gray explains that one telltale sign for many couples is actually the television. “The spouse can’t stand it. They say their spouse turns the TV up so loud that they have to leave the room,” she explains.
A few other signs of hearing loss include:
- Hearing mumbling or muffled sounds when others are speaking
- Getting lost when a conversation happens in crowds or other noisy areas
- Ringing inside the ears (tinnitus)
- Having people repeat things often
One of the most devastating parts of hearing loss is the connection to cognitive decline.
Dr. Kistenfeger explains, “The behaviors people have when they can’t hear include social isolation and withdrawing – they just stay at home and stop participating. The big word here is dementia.”
So, while hearing loss alone doesn’t cause cognitive decline, the change in lifestyle as a response to not being able to hear anymore is devastating.
3. Wear hearing protection.
If you’re around loud noises for an extended period of time, hearing protection is a must.
This is especially important for workers who hear noises of 85 decibels or higher over an 8-hour shift. Anything over 85 decibels is damaging. This is common for law enforcement, construction workers, musicians, and armed forces.
For reference, here are some National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) guidelines for how loud certain decibels really are:
- Whisper: 30 dB
- Normal conversation: 60 dB
- Vacuum cleaner: 75 dB
- Noisy restaurant or power lawn mower: 80-89 dB
- Motorcycle: 95-100 dB
- Chainsaw or headphones at maximum volume: 106-115 dB
- Rock concert or sirens: 120-129 dB
- Gunshots or firecrackers: 140 dB
Something many don’t realize is that the decibel scale isn’t measured like a ruler, where 10 centimeters is twice as long as 5. No – the decibel scale goes up in powers of ten.
Every increase in 10 dB is equivalent to a 10-fold increase in sound intensity. For example, 100 dB is ten times as loud as 90 dB.
Dr. Gray says, “We expect people to mow, to go to concerts, or to ride motorcycles. You should still participate, but wear hearing protection.”
4. Limit time around loud things.
In addition to wearing hearing protection, you should limit time around loud things. “Time restraints are based on decibel levels,” explains Dr. Kistenfeger.
If the sound is less than 75 decibels (anything quieter than a vacuum cleaner, for reference), you can handle that noise level for any period of time without any problems.
However, long or repeated exposure to 85 decibels or higher can cause hearing loss. In addition, it can lead to tinnitus, or a ringing sound in your ears.
Remember that decibel scale? A sound at or above 110 decibels is ten times louder than a sound at 100 decibels.
The guideline is to limit your exposure to sounds at or above 100 dB (motorcycle) to no more than 15 minutes, and limit sounds at or above 110 decibels (chainsaw) to no more than 1 minute. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to wear hearing protection or risk permanent hearing loss.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that when the noise level is increased by 5 decibels, the amount of time you can be exposed is cut in half.
Essentially, the louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes to cause noise-induced hearing loss (also referred to as NIHL).
Unfortunately, NIHL is far too common. Based on a 2011-2012 CDC study, as many as 40 million adults have hearing test results that indicate hearing loss from exposure to loud noise.
5. Have realistic expectations for correcting your hearing.
“A lot of people have an unrealistic expectation of hearing aids,” explains Dr. Gray. Hearing aids work at making incoming sounds clear and louder, but no hearing aid is capable of changing how the brain processes sound.
“Most think they’ll understand everything again right away,” continues Dr. Gray. “Unfortunately technology does not allow hearing aids to fully correct hearing yet.”
Dr. Gray and Dr. Kistenfeger say that treating your hearing loss starts with a well-fitted hearing aid, but success also comes from consistent follow-up care from your audiologist. Patients continue to receive education, counseling, and programming adjustments to aid in more successful outcomes.
6. Let go of the hearing aid stigma.
When you think of hearing aids, what comes to mind?
For many, it’s the thought of an elderly person with a big skin-colored device hanging from their ear. But in reality, that’s an outdated view of hearing aids.
“Everything is bluetooth now,” explains Dr. Kistenfeger. “Hearing aids are essentially just like earbuds. You can even stream music through them.”
Dr. Gray says that while many patients over 65 don’t care as much about the bluetooth technology, it’s becoming more and more popular. “You can connect your hearing aid to your Apple or Android phone. Hearing loss treatment is much more modern,” she says.
Both Dr. Gray and Dr. Kistenfeger say that losing the stigma is essential, because oftentimes, it holds people back from getting the treatment they need.
“The point is that you shouldn’t feel negative about wearing a hearing aid. People of all ages treat their hearing loss just like people wear glasses to treat their vision loss,” says Dr. Gray.
7. Understand the effects of buying hearing aids from a store or online rather than through an audiologist.
We now live in a world where you can get just about anything delivered to your doorstep. It’s convenient and you can often save money by doing price comparisons online.
Hearings aids, however, are not recommended to be bought online, say Dr. Gray and Dr. Kistenfeger.
“There can be a big difference between inexpensive hearing aids bought online or at a store and the hearing aids recommended by an audiologist,” says Dr. Kistenfeger.
Hearings aids aren’t one-size-fits-all, and an audiologist actually programs the hearing aid for each and every patient. When a hearing aid is ordered, it comes with standard settings from the manufacturer. Those standard settings need to be tweaked and adjusted for your specific hearing needs.
In addition, when you see an audiologist, you have a 6-week trial period in which you try the hearing aids and come back a few times to have them adjusted. “Everyone’s lifestyle is different, so any adjustments we make are very individualized,” says Dr. Gray.
“You don’t get that professional service when you buy online. Those products aren’t appropriately programmed for each patient’s specific hearing loss, and patients will ultimately have poor outcomes,” says Dr. Kistenfeger.
Dr. Kistenfeger explains that as audiologists, she and Dr. Gray know know what to do to make sure you have your best hearing.
Does Medicare Cover Hearing Expenses?
As of right now, Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids. “There are a lot of audiologists on the hill trying to change that, though,” says Dr. Kistenfeger.
Currently, Medicare only covers a hearing test under two conditions:
- It must be a medical necessity
- There must be a physician referral
“Basically, you just have to have a complaint about your hearing,” says Dr. Gray.
If you do have the hearing test done and find out you need treatment, such as a hearing aid, there are payment plans available if you see Dr. Gray or Dr. Kistenfeger.
“Because we’re in a medical setting, we have a healthcare credit card available that you can use for medical services. That helps many patients plan for the expense of a hearing aid,” says Dr. Kistenfeger.
In addition, there are supplement insurance options that help pay for hearing expenses along with dental and vision (both of which Medicare also doesn’t cover).
You can read more about that here: Dental, Vision, and Hearing Insurance for Illinois Seniors
Improve Your Hearing!
If you’re one of the many individuals who doesn’t think to have your hearing checked, Dr. Gray and Dr. Kistenfeger strongly encourage you to get a hearing test.
If your hearing is normal, at least you’ll know, and if there’s some hearing loss, you can take steps to help correct it and stop the loss from accelerating.
Most hearing loss is permanent, but if you take steps now, you can stop it from getting worse.
Dr. Therese Kistenfeger, Au.D, CCC-A earned her Doctorate in Audiology at the University of Memphis in 2011 and her Bachelors of Science in Special Education (Deaf and Hard of Hearing) from Illinois State University in 2003. Dr. Kistenfeger is a licensed audiologist in the state of Illinois and is certified through the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA).
Dr. Hannah Gray, Au.D, CCC-A, F-AAA earned her Doctorate in Audiology at Illinois State University in 2017 and her Bachelors of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Western Illinois University in 2012. Dr. Gray is a licensed audiologist in the state of Illinois and is certified through the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Audiology.
Dr. Kistenfeger and Dr. Gray are both Audiologists at AOD Hearing Aids, and you can find them at the AOD Hearing Aids website at www.aodhearingaids.com.
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