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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Tuning in to those with hearing loss

by Karen Martin | May 8, 2022 at 1:50 a.m.
Karen Martin

It's not difficult to detect and correct common vision problems. Many grade-schoolers figure out something is wrong when the kid sitting at the next desk can see what the teacher is writing on the blackboard, but we can't even if we squint.

I was one of them. Mom hauled me to an optometrist, who conducted an examination and diagnosed myopia (which often begins between the ages of 6 and 14). My problem was soon corrected with a pair of pink cat-eye glasses. Which I hated, but wore in school, if nowhere else. Until hard contact lenses came along. (Followed by gas-permeable contact lenses. Then soft contact lenses. And finally cataract surgery, which installed intraocular lenses that eliminated the need for glasses of any kind.)

Hearing problems are trickier. Kids who laugh, startle at loud noises, and seem fine at recognizing speech as toddlers may unconsciously develop coping techniques to compensate for hearing loss that occurs years after birth.

Signs include hearing normally some of the time and not responding at others, viewing TV or listening to music at high volumes, saying "what?" more often, speaking loudly, and relying on visual cues by watching intently when others speak.

An audiologist can help, starting with a basic screening, then progressing to a full evaluation if needed. Treatment can involve helping a family learn how to communicate better, getting a hearing aid or other assistive device, and using medication or corrective surgery.

What if an adult friend or family member gradually starts showing symptoms of hearing loss, often caused by aging and chronic exposure to loud noises (read: rock music cranked up in small venues)?

Unlike kids, grownups may be reluctant to admit there's a problem, especially if they suspect a hearing aid might be the solution. Reasons for this include self-image and ego (hearing aids are associated with aging, not a popular aspect of American culture), difficulty adapting to technology, knowing someone who tried hearing aids but found them clunky and unattractive (like my cat-eye glasses), unrealistic expectations (even in the best of circumstances, hearing will not go back to the way it used to be), and cost (Original Medicare doesn't cover hearing aids).

To get the most out of a hearing correction effort, find an experienced audiologist who utilizes evidence-based practice to prescribe the ideal balance of sound audibility and sound quality.

"The problem is usually not the hearing aid itself, but the professional responsible for realizing the maximum benefit from the devices," says Dr. Bradley Davis. He is the solo clinician at Medical Hearing Associates of Arkansas, a full-service evidence-based audiology clinic in Little Rock with a focus on selection, fitting, outcomes, and audiological rehabilitation therapy.

"We treat hearing health issues using a medical best-practice model, which calls for specific tools and techniques that ensure you are getting the most out of your hearing aids," he says.

Along with hearing aid dispensing and fitting, Dr. Davis' treatment options include diagnostic evaluations, communication evaluations based on patients' lifestyles and needs, live speech mapping (a verification method used to ensure that hearing aids are programmed to a set of independently researched targets), musicians' ear molds and ear plugs that protect hearing evenly across frequencies, and tinnitus evaluation and management.

An appropriately selected pair of hearing aids based on lifestyle and budget is the first step in the process, he explains. "There are specific guidelines, set by professional organizations such as the American Academy of Audiology, that when followed give the hearing aid patient maximum benefit and a higher quality of life."

Unfortunately, he continues, "these techniques are rarely utilized, and hearing aids are often programmed by having a computer give a 'best guess' fitting."

The most common complaint he hears is that a patient's current hearing instruments do not deliver sufficient benefit. The problem is likely not the hearing aids. A more likely weak link in the chain, according to Dr. Davis, is the audiologist responsible for realizing the maximum benefit from the devices.

"I am the only clinic in Little Rock that I am aware of that will reprogram a patient's current hearing aids using best-practice techniques," he says. "I have many patients with reprogrammed hearing aids that work much better than when they were originally set up."

Although his patients are mainly adults, he diagnoses and treats children with hearing issues, ranging from evaluations to pediatric hearing instruments. "Testing and treating children is similar to adults, except that you need to make sure to do everything perfectly and much more quickly," he says.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to improve communication with an adult experiencing hearing loss, according to Face the person and get their attention before speaking. Don't start talking from another room. Rephrase what you say. Don't shout. Speak naturally. Reduce background noise. Don't get frustrated; be understanding. Don't do all the talking.

And consider other means of communication such as texting, emailing, and group chats, especially in noisy spaces. That's how teenagers often stay in touch, even when they're in the same space.

Don't get angry with loved ones, thinking that they're not paying attention, or ignoring you, or pretending that they hear you when they don't, experts say.

Don't say, "It's not important," if you're not heard. Because it is.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

[email protected]

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