Several years ago, Geoffrey Cooling, after reading a post in this forum, wrote a thoughtful piece giving an answer to the question, “Have Mild Hearing Loss? Should You Get Hearing Aids?” (Hearing aids for mild hearing loss, yes or no?).
Still, as the question he posed keeps coming up in this forum – and I’ve found this forum helpful to me personally, as I adjust to wearing hearing aids for the first time – I thought I would recount my experience with HAs for an essentially mild loss in the upper frequencies, 3000-8000 Hz, a classic example of age-related sensorineural hearing loss.
First, some background: I am 75 years old, a professor and a writer. I’ve published books on philosophy, and on the history of democracy, and I’ve written a history of rock and roll.
Once upon a time, I was a rock critic. For a few decades, I made a living, in part, by attending rock concerts, often very, very loud. (I also had played in rock bands through college.) In the late Sixties, I adored the sheer volume of the music played by bands like the Byrds, Paul Butterfield when Mike Bloomfield was his lead guitarist, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Who – these are all groups I saw in the late Sixties in relatively small venues, and for me, the ringing in my ears was worth the price of admission. When I later became a working critic, I did try to protect my ears as best I could: though the volume at a Prince concert in the 1980s could be felt in one’s entire body, the bass was so loud.
Ever since, even once my professional career reviewing rock concerts was over, and classical music and jazz were mainly what I’d listen to live, I’ve episodically had my hearing tested – if you love music, and are a hi fi enthusiast (as I still am), whether you can hear properly really matters.
This past April, I went with my wife to see an audiologist for the first time in over a decade. Both of us had concerns about our diminishing ability to hear conversations in noisy restaurants; and both of us had read that untreated hearing loss is connected to dementia. (Dementia runs in both of our families, as does age related hearing loss.)
But what really provoked the appointment was my discovery that my university’s insurance policy now covered 100% of the cost of hearing aids prescribed in network, with a $25 co-pay. I mention my employer’s insurance coverage because generous coverage for treating hearing loss changes everything in how one thinks about the pros and cons of getting hearing aids. (The scandal of healthcare insurance in the United States is another topic for another time.)
Our audiological examination showed that both of us had a mild hearing loss. And given that our insurance covered virtually the entire cost, both of us naturally chose to be fitted with hearing aids, as our audiologist recommended. (We had several weeks to try them out, so there was no risk at all.)
Given my love of music, and need to hear speech clearly in classroom settings, I was fitted with Oticon More 1s.
Now if I had had to pay out of pocket for these state-of-the-art aids, would I have chosen to do so?
Honestly, I’m not sure. But under my lucky circumstances, I thought it was obvious that I should give the Oticon More 1s a try, as I had nothing to lose.
And, as I instantly understood with the aids turned on, I had a world of sounds to rediscover.
Suddenly I could hear again the astonishingly constant noisiness of walking outside in the Manhattan neighborhood where I live; I had heard it all before but now it was strident, and sharp. Inside our apartment, cooking a meal for friends, I could hear more clearly than before the sizzle of the food as I sauteed it in olive oil – it felt exhilarating. And once our friends were over, and we were listening to some music before dinner, I realized, to my shock, that I now could hear again with almost tactile force the brilliance of massed violins, and also the power of the electric guitar played at volume. The difference was day and night.
Our conversation over dinner was easy to follow – I hadn’t realized that I had been having to concentrate to keep up in conversations. I also was picking up nuances in my wife’s voice, expressing affect and feeling, that I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t hearing anymore.
After this experience, I realized, there was no doubt: I not only could benefit from hearing aids, I wanted to wear them because I loved the way the world sounded brand new to me.
I know the conventional caution on this forum is that hearing aids can’t restore hearing the way the glasses can restore 20/20 vision.
But I have to say that for my mild hearing loss, wearing the amazing Oticon More 1 aids was, for me, exactly like having my hearing restored to what it once had been.
What took longer for me to get used to was the alien feeling of the aids in my ears, the itching, the internalized stigma of aids=being old (but I was old!), the feelings of self-consciousness wearing them, and so forth.
But with help from my fantastic audiologist, Dr. Alison Hoffmann, who helped me tweak my music program following tips that I found on this forum, and by diligently wearing my aids throughout every day, I have found I was finally able, after three months, to forget I was wearing the aids, just as I have no awareness that I wear glasses – I now just move through a world where I can hear and see clearly.
In his piece Geoffrey Cooling concluded that there was no one correct answer to the questions he posed (“Have Mild Hearing Loss? Should You Get Hearing Aids?”) – it depended on the individual and their situation.
That seems basically right to me – especially since too many people don’t have access to adequate insurance coverage for treating hearing loss.
But I also know that some ENT doctors and primary care physicians, and even some audiologists, downplay the value of hearing aids for mild loss as a rule – and that advice, based on my personal experience, seems like a mistake.