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How to hear a whole lot better

Digital aids and amplifiers can help improve hearing.

Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 9:08 am

If you’re older than 45, there’s about a 1 in 5 chance you suffer from some amount of hearing loss – and that rate climbs steadily as you age, says Consumer Reports. Almost one-third of people ages 65 to 74 report difficulty hearing, and the number rises to about half at 75, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Most cases of hearing loss in adults stem from damage to the inner ear, where tiny hair cells turn sound vibrations into impulses that nerve cells then carry to the brain. The most common causes of that damage are aging and chronic exposure to loud noises – think rock concerts, sports events and lawn mowers. A family history of severe hearing loss could signal an increased risk. So does being male.

A second, easier-to-treat type of hearing loss originates in the middle or outer ear and stems from reversible problems such as impacted earwax, fluid buildup from an infection or the use of certain medications. Older adults often have a mix of both types of loss.

If you’re experiencing signs of hearing loss, Consumer Reports recommends that you first see a board-certified otolaryngologist – an ear, nose and throat physician.

The new hearing helpers

Hearing aids and other devices can dramatically improve your ability to hear and carry on a normal life. Consumer Reports scanned the marketplace and consulted hearing experts to help you determine which are worth considering.

•Digital hearing aids. Unlike older hearing aids, which amplified the volume on everything (including background noise), today’s digital models have microphones that transmit sound to a computer chip, which moderates the volume and amplifies the frequencies needed to help improve your hearing. They can be programmed to filter out wind and other background noises, and some can sync up wirelessly with Bluetooth to your smartphone, enabling you to hear calls through the hearing aid and use your phone to adjust the aid’s settings.

How to choose: Depending on the sophistication of the device and where you get fitted, expect to pay $1,000 to $6,000 for a pair of custom-fitted hearing aids. Medicare and most private insurers don’t cover hearing aids, but check your health plan.

•Personal sound amplifiers (PSAPs). These over-the-counter products generally have fewer features and less functionality than hearing aids, although some of the technology may be similar. They’re sold online and at some mass retailers. The Food and Drug Administration cautions that PSAPs aren’t designed for people with hearing loss, but rather for people who want to amplify certain sounds – and they aren’t subject to the same safety and effectiveness standards that hearing aids are. So consult an audiologist first if you’re considering one.

How to choose: Options range from behind-the-ear models (about $25 to $500) to in-ear models such as The Bean ($375 and more), which claims to amplify hard-to-hear sounds, including soft voices, while lowering the volume on loud noises.