Recently a patient told me she was reluctant to wear her new hearing aids all of her waking hours because she worried that they would make her natural hearing worse. Unlike glasses, which do weaken the muscles of our eyes, using hearing aids will not weaken your ears. In fact, using hearing aids strengthens your listening skills and stimulates the hearing part of your brain so that you adjust fully to the amplified sounds.
Her concern made me give this some thought, I wondered if she was being more honest with me than others who simply have this worry and don’t share it. I came up with several reasons why people might mistakenly wonder if they are becoming “overly dependant” on their aids or if their hearing is getting worse.
1. The first is the normal contrast between how much better you hear with your hearing aids on and then realizing how much less you hear without them. People have told me that when they first get hearing aids and take them off at bedtime their natural hearing feels “muffled”. This is because the brain has been adjusting to the amplified sound and developing new connections. The more you wear the aids the more benefit you will get. Although you may perceive a difference after using hearing aids, if we put you in the booth and did a hearing test, your hearing levels would remain the same.
2. The second reason is that you might have a progressive hearing loss which would change on its own over time regardless of hearing aid use. This is the case for my patient who was reluctant to wear her aids full time, saving them for when she really needed them. In the 20 years I have known her her hearing has decreased steadily. She has been to otologists to rule out any underlying medical problem and relys on hearing aids to communicate. I think I have finally convinced her to wear the aids full time to reap the benefits of a well tuned brain that has gotten strong on a consistent signal.
3. The third reason is the effects of aging on our hearing and most importantly on our brain. We really hear with our brain, the ears simply give the brain the signal to decode and make meaningful. As we age the brain processes sound more slowly, which can make it more difficult to hear. So it makes sense that your hearing is worse at 75 than when you first got your hearing aids at age 50.
For the most people hearing gradually diminishes over time, regardless of hearing aid use. I work with a 55 year old woman who has worn hearing aids for over 50 years. She reports that her audiogram today is very similar to the results when she was a child. Clearly using powerful hearing aids has not damaged her hearing.
It is important to check your hearing every year or two to monitor any changes and to be sure your hearing aids are adjusted appropriately. When you have regular hearing evaluations ask your Audiologist to compare your hearing levels over time.